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Through the years, the National Football League has been known to implement all sorts of rules on uniforms, including forbidding players from showing off naked shins and calves. We are not making this up: During NFL games players cannot show off their lower-leg skin.
National Football League players cannot show their legs, meaning the skin from the knee to the top of the shoes, by league rules. Long leg stockings have been required in the NFL since the end of World War II, even though bare lower legs have always existed in college football.
That last part, that college players do not have to cover all leg skin, is a reason so many of our readers ask about this topic. The different rules result in totally differing perceptions between these levels of football play.
With their uncovered lower legs, college football players resemble those playing in youth leagues or high school, when the game is played purely for fun or bragging rights.
In the No Fun League ~ which the NFL is called at times due to constant new rules forbidding things like over-celebrating big plays ~ games are played for money, and the sport is big business.
As the large corporation that it is, the NFL attempts to maintain uniformity between all its teams, in an effort that today it says is “to maintain competitive equity.”
Equating the length of socks with equality among players and teams seems quite the stretch, doesn’t it? Maybe, maybe not. Another reason for long socks in the NFL, along with many other uniform regulations, is to protect players from injury.
Okay, then. Let’s take a deep look at this phenomenon and see what’s really up.
While college football started in 1869 and was quite popular by the start of the 20th century, top-level professional football in the United States took years to capture the public’s attention.
The National Football League was born in 1920, it was by popularity standards a minor league, with it’s schedule of only few games, and a single game each week at that, and lack of traditions enjoyed by the most popular sports of baseball and boxing.
Into the middle of the 1900s, NFL leaders started having concerns with the league’s image, with putting a consistent, clean product on the field.
In this vein, in 1945, NFL Commissioner Elmer Layden approved a requirement that all players wear long stockings, and keep them pulled up. The reason? He thought football players’ legs were “unsightly.”
The rule just remained, unchallenged. It mandates that socks must be white from the top of the shoe to mid-calf; and from mid-calf to the bottom of the pant leg should be only an approved team color. (Pant legs also must be pulled down to a point below the knee).
In explanation, the Game Operations Manual for the league states, “A player’s appearance on the field conveys a message regarding the image of the league and directly affects the league’s reputation and success.”
Over the years these appearance regulations were expanded to require the tucking of jerseys into their pants (as opposed to college where many players do not, or cut the bottoms off for comfort).
Many players popularized wearing bandannas under their helmets or on the sidelines, a la Deion Sanders ~ but the NFL eventually outlawed that, too. Along with headbands with messages on them, after Jim McMahon showed them off in the mid-1980s.
Protecting the NFL Image
All NFL rule changes are made in the name of protection: of the players, or the league’s image. The latter here, safeguarding the image of the NFL, is quite subjective.
Whereas rules intended for player safety are now guided by the medical field or science, and plenty of study, old NFL uniform rules are not. The NFL, like the other major sports leagues, today apply marketing tactics to determine what fans desire, and what they do not like.
That is not applied to rule changes for player safety. It also is not yet applied to old rules like the long-stockings requirement.
When the NFL first outlawed showing lower-leg skin, the public barely noticed. That’s because games had to be seen in person, at stadiums, in the days before television broadcasts.
The NFL long-socks rule was already in place when viewers could see college and professional football games on TV during the same sitting, or on the same day ~ providing them with visual differences between the 2 styles.
This particular difference did not attract a lot of attention, since other differences, like the 2-point conversion (until 1994), or the wider hash marks, were more easily noticeable.
Baseball was the nation’s top sport until mass acceptance of television nudged the popularity of football into the stratosphere.
Football, with its constant action and physical violence, was a much better game to watch than baseball. Aside from excitement of the play, baseball suffers from the way the playing surface is shaped. Cameras can only capture much of the main action ~ pitcher throwing to batter ~ from one point, directly from centerfield.
Football fields are long and narrow and provide ample opportunity for placement of cameras all over the place, to get views from every angle.
As the NFL blossomed in popularity, so too did the league’s concerns to preserve that prosperity. Carefully regulating what viewers would see on their television sets, from the appearance inside stadiums to the uniforms of the players, expanded.
- In game play, 1 team must wear white, the other team a color (first choice belongs with the home team; if it chooses color, which home teams mostly do, the opposing team must wear white jerseys). This rule just helps fans tell the difference between the teams on the field.
- The NFL lets teams wear alternate uniforms (those different from the normal home or away jerseys) 3 times each season. It is during these games when fans might notice socks fully in a single color. This is because that game was designated by that team as 1 of the times it can wear uniforms other than their regular whites or colors.
Question: Have players ignored the long-socks rule?
Answer: Periodically the rule gets challenged by players somehow, like cornerbacks in the 1980s wearing team colors very low and close to the shoes. Other examples included trying to sneak corporate logos down there, or letting socks slip below the knee. In the end, fines or the threat of fines cause rebelling players to acquiesce.
Q.: How do socks protect the health of football players?
A.: The only thing we can think of is preventing scratches, cuts, or rug burns on the knees if they are uncovered during a play, especially for games played on artificial turf. Maybe they also keep calf muscles warmer to avoid pulls?
Q.: How do long socks impact “competitive equity”?
A.: Good question. Perhaps it’s to prevent a team from creating highly unusual socks (like those worn by Major League baseball teams), which they then can sell to make more money than teams that have boring socks? Maybe if a team makes their entire lower legs a dark color, they will intimidate the opposition? We bet if we asked this question to NFL owners, we would get 32 different answers. It is worthwhile to mention another reason for all the NFL uniform regulations: to “protect the league’s business partnerships.” All jerseys are made by Nike; no other logos are allowed except those league-approved.