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Addressing the Misguided Outrage About the Northwestern Uniform Controversy

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So you’ve decided to be outraged by the Under Armour Wounded Warrior Project uniforms unveiled for Northwestern. I won’t recap the history of this apparent controversy, but I will respond to each element with more than just the “oh come on” that I’d really like to rely on.

Blood

The “distressed” design is not spattered blood. We know this because common sense and statements from both Under Armour and Northwestern have told us so. I personally don’t see how it could be mistaken for spattered blood, both given the actual design and the context, but there were some who thought it could be blood beyond those who just read a headline on a blog or news site and assumed that was the case.

Part of this was bad luck on Under Armour’s part. The picture that was most frequently used on websites showed mostly stripes and little blue, though the distressed pattern was still visible on the stars that were visible. If the thought that it could be blood comes to your mind, the next step should be to look into it, not write an angry blog post or article. A closer look shows not just a design that looks nothing like spattered blood, but also that the same pattern is visible on the non-red portions of the design.

Even if someone doesn’t notice that it exists all over the uniform, there should be a critical thought process going on that questions whether Under Armour would actually put blood on a football uniform, throwing such a conclusion into, at worse, significant doubt. At best, it would be more in the line of “oh, they’re in the business of making money and are not insane, so it’s probably not the blood of our war veterans.”

I understand that a lot of people formed opinions based on the reactions of others, whether on Deadspin or on Esquire. That doesn’t excuse these people. Critical thinking still needs to be exercised. A headline shouldn’t tell you what to think about a situation.

As has been pointed out by many others, the distressed design is not new. Under Armour used it last year for both Hawaii and Boston College. I looked online and found no such reactions to those jerseys. This situation was misinterpreted by one or several people and it snowballed out of control before anyone could reshape the narrative. Again, those that reacted first failed to think through what they were writing about and jumped to a factually incorrect conclusion.

Let’s also remember that the design won’t be visible on TV. Under Armour likes to do a lot of detail work that is only noticeable when seen up close, like the brick pattern Northwestern uses on its numbers, and when the guys are stationary. On a TV broadcast, nobody will be able to tell that there is a distressed design on the flag pattern.

Alternate Uniforms

That doesn’t mean I think everyone should like the uniform. People are more than allowed to feel that the distressed flag look or even wearing a flag design is insulting or inappropriate. The flag code has been cited as the basis for some of these reactions. But if you actually look at the flag code, it is constantly violated in both sporting events and everyday displays of patriotism. I’m fine if you want to argue in favor of the flag code, but if you’re going to do it, do it for every violation.

There are people who dislike every uniform design, whether standard or alternate. Again, that’s fine. We all have different opinions and it’s impossible for a company like Under Armour to please everyone. But these kinds of uniforms aren’t new. It seems like most schools now wear a flag design logo on their helmet for one game a year. Northern Illinois will be wearing a very similar uniform this weekend and that got no national attention. Complain about the design or the fact that it’s not specific to Northwestern. Just don’t bring up the blood argument, which, again, is based on something factually incorrect, or the flag code unless you’re going to argue against every violation you see. And in sports, there are a lot.

Money

A bonus source of outrage has been the fact that only 10% of replica jersey sales will be donated to the Wounded Warrior Project. I have no problem with people taking exception to a company trying to profit from something like this, but we’re missing the larger picture.

In this specific instance, Under Armour is not going to be selling very many replicas. Maybe this controversy will actually help boost sales since I’d imagine a lot of people would otherwise have been unaware that replicas are even for sale. But how many do you think they’ll sell given that Northwestern has a small fan base and is on a five game losing streak? How many black alternates from last year or this year have you seen in person? I have seen very few and that’s a popular look. Some will be sold and while I can’t predict exactly how many, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if Under Armour only breaks even on the replicas and associated apparel. And if they do make money, it probably won’t make up for the costs that went into the actual uniforms.

The real money here is in the auction. After the game, all of the uniforms will be auctioned off to the public with 100% of the proceeds going to the Wounded Warrior Project. These uniforms will command a lot of money. Essentially, Under Armour, which paid to make the uniforms, is selling them to the public at a big markup and donating all of it to charity. The sale of replicas and other items is an attempt to recoup some of the costs. Is that sleezy? That’s up to you. All that I’ll say is that Under Armour is a for-profit company and without an ability to make money, none of this money would be donated to the Wounded Warrior Project.

It’s also very important to keep in mind that Under Armour has a larger partnership with the Wounded Warrior Project. The football uniform component dates back to 2009, but they also sell general Wounded Warrior Project apparel with a portion of the proceeds going to the charity. On their website, Under Armour says that “between August 2012 and December 2014, Under Armour will make a donation of over $1 million to Wounded Warrior Project benefitting injured service members and their families.” These annual uniforms are one element of a partnership that provides money and exposure to the Wounded Warrior Project and money and positive press to Under Armour. Wounded Warrior Project is not being exploited. The money being made is coming at the expense of the consumer.

I understand that some people don’t like blind patriotism and shallow “we support our troops” tributes. Again, that’s fine. I am more or less one of those people. But this initiative is not meant to do that. It’s to provide funds and exposure to a specific charity, one that does plenty of good work.

Northwestern, as per their agreement with Under Armour, does not make much money off of apparel sales. According to Darren Rovell, schools get about 10% of jersey sales. There seems to be a misunderstanding as to how these deals work. This article from Time.com is a good, albeit brief, rundown of how and why things work the way they do. The gist is that schools sign exclusivity deals with apparel companies for a boat load of money, free uniforms, and hopefully a leg up in recruiting. In exchange, the apparel companies get to make a profit in the retail space and use the schools for brand exposure.

These Wounded Warrior Project uniforms were not made specifically with Northwestern in mind. Northwestern, as one of Under Armour’s clients, was in line to wear the uniforms, just like Boston College and Hawaii did last year and South Carolina the year before that. If you want to complain that these uniforms do not contain any purple or anything specific to Northwestern, that’s fine. There was no intention to do that. These are designed and made by Under Armour for a specific purpose and that isn’t to provide Northwestern with greater brand exposure.

In general, schools can have very little say in even whether or not they wear alternate uniforms, though probably more so in basketball. With these, I’d imagine Northwestern was very enthusiastic about the opportunity. But it’s not about making any significant money off replicas for them.

“I didn’t get a harrumph out of that guy!”

I avoided the posts and articles about the controversy yesterday because it all seemed quite silly. So much noise over nothing. It still feels like that. I wasted way too much time on Twitter and on this post even writing about it.

Let’s all just take a step back, use some common sense before picking up the pitchforks, take a look at the entire situation, and hopefully move on. If you want to hate these uniforms because you think they look stupid, they’re not purple, or you think it’s flag-waving jingoism, go ahead. But don’t hate them because of something they aren’t. And keep in mind that there’s a bigger picture. Under Armour may be attempting to make some money off of apparel sales, but without the larger effort and partnership, the Wounded Warrior Project would not be getting anything. Northwestern isn’t taking money from their pockets because they aren’t making anything significant. And Under Armour isn’t taking money from their pockets because they wouldn’t be getting anything without them to begin with.

Under Armour gets some money. A charity gets a lot. Northwestern gets a lot from the overall deal, but nothing really specifically for this. Consumers spend a lot of money. It’s capitalism. Sometimes it isn’t black or white. Sometimes it’s charcoal gray with a distressed design, which could also be used to describe my soul after having to think and write about this issue.

Plus, it could always be worse.