By Paul Lukas
Special to Page 2

It's gotta be the shoes, you say? Nuh-uh -- it's the socks.

If those words sound familiar, it's because they kicked off Uni Watch's exhaustive examination of baseball stirrups a few months back. But they're just as applicable to the NFL, in which Sunday's Colts-Browns game featured an old-fashioned hosiery hoedown. No, not this; Uni Watch is referring to the fact that every single player on the field was wearing striped socks, a sumptuous visual feast that's become all too rare a spectacle these days.

We'll get to the issues of striping in a sec, but first some quick history: The key date in NFL hosiery history is 1945, when league commissioner Elmer Layden decided that NFL players had unsightly legs and enacted a rule, still on the books, requiring high stockings. As currently worded, the rule stipulates that "the exterior stocking must be solid white from the top of the shoe to the midpoint of the lower leg, with approved team color or colors from that midpoint to the top of the stocking," although more and more players these days are lowering the white/color intersection by wearing ankle-length white socks over colored leggings, a style known as "low whites" (and a few have gone further by eschewing whites altogether). Ironically, although low whites are against the league's uni code and sometimes result in fines, they're exactly what Elmer Layden himself used to wear in his playing days, when he was one of Notre Dame's Four Horsemen.

Whatever the ratio of color to white, the point of football socks, at least from a design standpoint, is to provide contrast from the pants. So teams with two different pant designs in their wardrobes usually have two different sock designs as well (color-topped socks for their white pants and white-topped socks for their colored pants), and teams that always wear colored pants usually have one set of contrasting color-topped socks, no matter whether they're at home or on the road. Teams that ignore these basic tenets, by pairing colored pants with same-colored socks, do so at their own peril, because it creates the unfortunate visual effect of a leotard, bordering on a unitard. (There will now be a 20-second break while everyone makes a gratuitous 'tard joke.)

OK, now about those stripes. When the NFL came of age in the 1960s and '70s, most teams wore stripes around the calf area. Sometimes these stripes were even multicolored, which looked particularly sharp when they mimicked the team's sleeve striping (of course, this was when football jerseys actually had sleeves). Except for the Broncos' infamous vertically striped hose -- which you can learn more about by scrolling down to the middle of this very informative page -- the striped look was totally cool. But sometime around 1990, much to Uni Watch's dismay, the stripes started being replaced by solid blocks of color.

The only that teams that still wear old-style multicolored stripes in every game are the Bears (this design with white pants, this one with colored pants) and Chiefs (white pants, colored pants). In addition, the Colts revived their old-school white-striped socks last season (shades of Johnny U!). Then there are the teams that get it half-right, wearing stripes with their dark pants but solid color with their light pants. And then it's downhill from there. Here's a quick ranking of the entire league's legwear, from pigskin purgatory to hosiery heaven:

Clueless: These are the teams that never wear stripes. It's a depressingly large contingent: the Lions, Packers, Vikings, Bucs, Falcons (who have distinct socks for their red jersey and white jersey), Panthers (white jersey, dark jersey), Saints, 49ers, Seahawks, Rams, Cardinals, Cowboys, Eagles, Raiders, Giants (blue jersey, white jersey), Texans (blue jersey, white jersey), Titans, Steelers (who get tiny bonus points because their socks often have visible vertical ribbing, which provides a nice textural element), Bengals (white pants, black pants), Jaguars, and Ravens (who appear to have retired their old purple-striped socks, a rare instance of stripe decay that Uni Watch can applaud).

Almost Clueless: The Broncos and Bills don't quite have striped socks, but they do have a thin boundary of color separating the white and block-color zones -- sort of a chromatic DMZ. Not as good as real stripes, but better than nothing.

Half a Clue: These are the teams that have two sets of socks -- one striped, one not. This group includes the Chargers (striped, not), Redskins (striped, not), Browns (striped, not), Patriots (striped, not), Dolphins (striped, not), and Jets (striped, not).

Teams That Get It: As noted earlier, the Bears, Chiefs and Colts wear shin striping in every game. Can't other teams learn from their fine example?

Given the huge number of teams in that first group, all-stripes games like Sunday's Colts-Browns beauty are rare treats indeed (could someone in the league office please schedule a Chicago/KC game already?). But throwback games help the odds a little: The Bills' new throwback unis, for example, feature totally rulin' striped socks (although we've already seen the last of them for this season), and the Cowboys' Week 2 outfits -- which they'll be wearing again on Thanksgiving -- were a veritable stripe-o-rama.

Two final notes: First, look closely and you'll see that some of the best striped socks are worn by the guys who also wear striped shirts -- the officials. And second, any discussion of football legwear requires a mention of the brilliantly obsessive Web site administered by the pseudonymous sock savant known as Witesock. The link is here, but it might not work for you, because Witesock doesn't have enough bandwidth to handle all the hits from Uni Watch nation. So if you get an error message, bookmark the URL and check it again in a few days -- trust Uni Watch on this one.

Paul Lukas thinks that if college players insist on playing bare-legged, then they shouldn't be allowed to wear knee braces, because who wants to look at that? His full-length "Uni Watch" columns continue to run on alternate Thursdays, while "Uni Watch: Weekend Update" appears each Monday. Archives of his "Uni Watch" columns are available here, here, and here. Got feedback for him, or want to be added to his mailing list? Contact him here.


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