- Paul Lukas
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The San Diego Padres do not have a particularly illustrious history. They have never won a championship. They have won only two National League pennants, the last of which was 15 years ago. Their only National League MVP winner -- Ken Caminiti in 1996 -- admitted to abusing steroids during his MVP season and later died of a drug overdose. They are the only MLB team never to have had a no-hitter. They are one of only two MLB teams never to have had a player hit for the cycle.
But the Padres deserve credit -- or, if you prefer, blame -- for an innovation that has reshaped the look of modern sports. In 2000, they wore a camouflage jersey for one game, as a salute to San Diego's strong military culture. At the time, many observers (including this one) laughed it off as a misguided mistake that had no place on the field of play and would likely end up in the "What were they thinking?" file.
Didn't quite work out that way, did it? Thirteen years later, the Padres' camouflage jersey is now a standard part of the team's wardrobe, worn for every Sunday home game. Moreover, camouflage uniforms, along with their close cousins, American flag-patterned uniforms, have spread throughout every nook and cranny of the sports world, all the way down to Pop Warner and Little League teams. Aside from the ubiquitous use of black jerseys, the increasing use of camouflage is probably the biggest uniform trend of the past decade. It has become an all-purpose default symbol of patriotism and is now routinely trotted out for a wide range of holidays and promotions, including Memorial Day, Independence Day, Veterans Day, Armed Forces Day, Sept. 11 and "Military Appreciation Day" (which is not an official holiday but is a common promotional event used by many teams throughout the year).
But though camouflage and other military-themed uniform details can now be seen year-round, they're particularly visible in November. Part of this is simply because so many sports are being played this time of year -- the NFL, NBA, NHL, college football and college basketball are all active. And part of it is that Veterans Day falls on Nov. 11.
Individually, a single camouflage uniform is a laudable gesture. Collectively, though, they've begun to constitute a de facto campaign of political messaging that raises troubling questions about the role of the military in the sports world -- questions that are now being voiced by an increasing number of fans, including some past and present members of the military.
Several years ago, the UniWatch blog received a number of negative responses. Among the points made: Not all soldiers are heroes, and not all heroes are soldiers. Some asked why are there no special uniforms for everyday heroes such as teachers, firefighters, social workers and such.
There are also former servicemen who think the trend is over the top. "As a former Marine, I think all this over-the-top stuff is superficial and, in many regards, an insult to the troops," Mark Cunningham, who identified himself as a Desert Storm vet, told The Associated Press earlier this month. "Wearing camouflage football uniforms and sticking flags everywhere does not mean that you understand what any Marine, sailor, airman or soldier has experienced in war or in garrison during peacetime."
In order to put those questions in context, it's useful to see just how much camouflage is out there. So here's a sport-by-sport breakdown of some of what's been on display the first few weeks of this month:
NFL: November is the NFL's "Salute to Service" month, and the league has been awash in camouflage -- camo cleats, camo gloves, camo captaincy patches, camo towels, camo arm tape, camo coaches' caps and ribbons, camo goalposts, camo on the ball and pylons, camo mascots, even camo cheerleaders. In addition, teams have been wearing U.S. military logo helmet decals, and the Panthers wore Military Order of the Purple Heart helmet decals Monday night. The only thing that the league hasn't done is a full-on camouflage jersey -- at least so far.
College football: There are so many schools out there -- far too many to document all the ones that have worn camouflage, stars and stripes, or other military-related imagery this month. But here's a partial list: Army, Illinois, Iowa, James Madison, Kansas State, Lock Haven, Middle Tennessee State, Minnesota, Montana State, Northern Illinois, Northwestern, Oregon, Purdue, Rutgers, South Alabama, Southern Miss, USF, Utah, UTSA, Washington and West Texas A&M.
NBA: Up until this year, only one NBA team had worn camouflage on the court: the Raptors. This season, however, the Spurs have added a new camo alternate uni. It made its on-court debut last week and will be worn again Feb. 28. (In an ironic twist, the Spurs currently have the league's most multinationally diverse roster, with three players from France, two from Australia, and one each from Italy, Brazil, Argentina and Canada.) The Raptors have worn their camo uni this month as well. Meanwhile, the Jazz marked Veterans Day by wearing stars and stripes socks.
College basketball: Georgetown and Oregon wore camouflage uniforms for the season-opening Armed Forces Classic game Nov. 8, which took place at an Army base in South Korea. Also, South Carolina's new uniforms for this season have camouflage numbers and trim.
NHL: So far, no NHL team has used camouflage in a game. But many teams have worn camouflage jerseys for pregame warm-ups this month, continuing a trend from recent seasons.
MLB: Baseball isn't even being played this month, but that didn't stop the Mets from announcing on Veterans Day that they'd be wearing camouflage jerseys for five games next season. In addition, the uni-centric site SportsLogos.net has reported that another MLB team, as yet unnamed, will have a new camouflage alternate jersey next season, with another unnamed team unveiling a new stars and stripes design. This is all in addition to the camo jerseys already worn by several other teams and the camo-lettered jerseys worn by all teams last season for Memorial Day.
Any way you slice it, that's a lot of camouflage. Expressing support for the military on sports uniforms isn't a new phenomenon -- back in 1917 and '18, MLB teams supported America's entry into World War I by wearing American flag patches, red, white and blue armbands, and even red, white and blue stockings.
Paul Lukas liked it better when the Padres' most notable contribution to uniform history was their unusual color scheme. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted or just ask him a question? Contact him here.
Patriotic-themed attire is one of the growing trends, but it doesn't come without some contention.