The Short Game: A History of Football Sleeve Lengths
Over the last few years, football pant bottoms have crept upward. Most folks think the short pants trend is new, but my story, The Long History of Football's Short Pants, shows short pants have been around since at least the 1920s, and perhaps earlier in the Canadian game. Since that story is the most-read article on Football Archaeology, there appears to be an appetite for understanding the history of football's hems, and having covered players' pants, we now get to the bottom of their jersey sleeves.
Before discussing jersey sleeves, I ask you to picture an early football player wearing a short-sleeved jersey in your mind. If you have trouble imagining that fellow in your mind's eye, it is likely because short-sleeved football players were the rarest of birds until the mid-1950s. There appears to be no logical reason why football players did not shorten their sleeves until then, we only know they didn't.
Football began in the Northeast in the months of October and November. It can get chilly in those parts in the fall, so it made sense that players wore long sleeves. The earliest players wore light gymnasium gear, which tore easily and was quickly replaced by football-specific gear, particularly canvas jackets. Originally long-sleeved, many players converted them to less restrictive vests with long-sleeved jerseys or sweaters underneath.
By the turn of the century and into the early 1910s, players continued wearing vests or union suits that combined the vest with padded pants. Others wore only wool jerseys on their upper body. Either way, the jersey or sweater had long sleeves.
Long sleeves remained the norm with the worsted wool jerseys in the 1910s and 1920s, and long sleeves stuck around when cotton jerseys became an option in the 1920s.
The late 1920s and 1930s were a period of innovation in uniforms. Silk, satin, and airplane cloth were used for uniforms, though most teams and manufacturers stuck with wool. And despite football jerseys being played for decades in Alabama, LA, and Hawaii, players did not assert their right to bare arms and continued wearing full or three-quarter-length sleeves.
Looking back, it's odd that folks playing in hotter locations did not question the need for long sleeves, but they kept them long. Surely, someone tore the sleeves off their practice gear, but whoever they were, they returned to long sleeves for games. At least, that's what all the pictures show.
The first report of a football team wearing short sleeves came in 1939. Slip Madigan was the long-time coach at St. Mary's in California and was coming off a Cotton Bowl win when he got the idea to outfit his team, or some of his team, in jerseys with 4-inch sleeves. He thought they would be more comfortable. His innovation received little press and was only partially accepted by St. Mary's players since yearbook photos show that much of the team remained in full- or three-quarter-length sleeves. So, even when given the opportunity by their coach to wear short sleeves, most went long.
The next report of a team wearing short sleeves came when Frank Leahy became concerned that his Fighting Irish might overheat when playing at Texas in 1952. He had them take it easy in warmups, wear pith helmets on the bench, and they took the field in short sleeves.
Notre Dame wore short sleeves again when playing at Miami in 1955, and a handful of other schools wore them as well, but full- and three-quarter-length sleeves remained the norm through the 1950s. Those desiring short-sleeve jerseys had to special order them.
After short sleeves became the norm in the 1960s, some players continued wearing three-quarter-length sleeves, especially when playing in colder conditions. However, most transitioned to wearing layers that combined the short-sleeve jersey with a separate undergarment with long sleeves.
Players, coaches, and jersey manufacturers were content with regular short sleeves until the late 1990s when sleeves began disappearing. The trend started with defensive linemen who wanted to offer offensive linemen less to grab, but turnabout is fair play, so offensive linemen also went the minimal sleeve route. Everyone other than quarterbacks and specialists did the same as we went through several generations of rising sleeves. The image of UCLA's 2007 team shows the offensive linemen with minimal sleeves, the running back with extra fabric and elastic cuffs to limit grabbing, and the quarterback's short sleeves flap in the wind.
Today, almost everyone has gone the linemen route with sleeves that cover the shoulder pads and little else.
So, there you go. After nearly a century of playing football in long sleeves, the game transitioned to short sleeves around 1960 and the almost sleeveless look in the 2000s. Still, it is unclear why sleeves remained long for so long. Was it modesty? That is unlikely, given the gear worn by wrestlers, basketball players, or track athletes of the day. Was it something related to the field conditions? No, most big schools played on carefully manicured fields long before their sleeves rose, and they kept their sleeves short when playing on artificial carpets that burned knees and forearms alike.
I wish I could explain the delay in rising sleeves, but I haven't identified a good reason. What's your best off-the-cuff rationale?
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