Friends: if you're looking for my annual review and grade of Nebraska's new uniforms, to be worn against Buffalo on Sept. 11, you'll want to click here.
In this piece, we're going to have some bigger conversations about first responders, the military, September 11, and how to appropriately honor / respect all of them. Spoiler: I think cramming all of them into a single event is a mistake and using a camouflage uniform as the primary visual symbol is - at best - inappropriate.
I want to give you fair warning about where we are headed, as I understand some folks will have zero interest in this topic. If this is not what you're wanting to read, I'll understand and respect your opinion.
Otherwise, I invite you to join the discussion. I welcome your feedback and dialogue.
There are four main areas I want to address:
- The overall theme of these uniforms tosses several separate groups worthy of recognition and/or remembrance (first responders, military, and 9/11 victims) into a single package.
- Throwing a camouflage wrapper on that package is inappropriate.
- Appropriating September 11 as a military holiday.
- Marketing / profiting off 9/11 tribute uniform.
First things first: Nebraska produced one heck of a video to unveil the uniforms. If you haven't watched it yet, take two and a half minutes and do so.
It is a video designed to trigger deep emotions, and it succeeds. I guarantee many people needed a tissue after watching it. The visuals it contains (America, Nebraska, Huskers, active-duty military, police, firefighters, medical workers, EMTs, first responders, veterans, combat wounded, and more) are emotionally evocative to a large number of people - myself included.
But it leads me into my first point:
1. The overall theme of these uniforms tosses several separate groups worthy of recognition and/or remembrance (first responders, military, and 9/11 victims) into a single package.
As great as the video is, it is also an overload of American symbolism. Short of a bald eagle landing on Jackson's massive forearms, or a mom pulling up in a Chevy truck to serve apple pie, there are not many patriotic symbols left on the idea board. That mishmash is where the confusion begins.
Who - or what - are we honoring with these uniforms?
The video ends by saying "all first responders and military service members", which casts a big net. A tweet from the Nebraska Football account says, "In honor of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, @huskerfbnation will be wearing these commemorative camouflage jerseys… to honor those who were affected." It is not unreasonable to say that every American alive 20 years ago was "affected" by the terror attacks and aftermath.
That broad scope is probably intentional. "First responders" covers a wide range* of professions. Some of us knew somebody who died on September 11, 2001. Most have service members in our families and/or a deep respect for the sacrifice they make to protect our freedom. Are we honoring service members and first responders of today or just those impacted post 9/11?
*Another benefit of the wide scope of "first responders": it sidesteps potential locker room tensions. Several current players participated in protests and marches after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. Getting buy-in on a uniform honoring NYPD's heroic role on 9/11 might be tough. Expand it out to "first responders" and I suspect few will have an issue with it.
To be clear: I'm not saying that first responders, military / veterans, or 9/11 victims are not worthy of being honored and recognized/remembered. Obviously, they all are - but each in their own unique way. My point is this feels like an attempt to put several divergent groups of people into the same box.
The best way to honor and respect, servicemen and women is inherently different from the solemn way to pay tribute to the nearly 3,000 people who died on 9/11. For example, I'll gladly stand and cheer for a military member who has served their country, or a firefighter who ran into a burning building to save a life. But that behavior would be wildly inappropriate at a memorial service for somebody who died. Therefore, the one-size-fits-all approach taken here is likely to be awkward - if not disrespectful.
I'm well aware that I may be in the minority on this. From what I saw in the comments of NU's Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook posts, many fans fall into two different camps: a) They do not recognize that multiple, divergent groups are being collectively honored, or b) they're willing to label that single box "HEROES” and move on.
2. Throwing a camouflage wrapper on that package is inappropriate.
As I said in my review of the uniforms, I don't particularly care for camouflage sports uniforms. I say let the service academies have that space, because nobody does it better.
I have long said that I love and respect the way Nebraska never forgets what the "Memorial" in Memorial Stadium is all about. I always enjoy the Cornhusker Marching Band's medley of armed forces anthems played around Veteran's Day. So, if NU wants to do some military cosplay to further honor those to serve to protect our freedom, have at it. It might be a nice addition to the Veteran's Day weekend game some year.
If the jerseys Nebraska will wear are intended to honor "first responders" - which is what NU's video says - camouflage is a puzzling choice. Very few civilian first responder organizations wear camouflage daily. Some police departments may use camo for their tactical teams, but those are a small niche.
If - as this tweet from NU states - the "commemorative camouflage jerseys" were designed to be worn "in honor of the 20 year anniversary of 9/11", camouflage is a horribly inappropriate choice. Seriously, seriously inappropriate.
On some level, I can understand why the design choice was made to use camouflage. Paul Lukas - who writes extensively about sports uniforms for his Uni-Watch website and other platforms - once wrote that camo uniforms have "become an all-purpose default symbol of patriotism….routinely trotted out for a wide range of holidays and promotions." Simply put, using camouflage is attempting to equate patriotism with the military. Therefore, I find camouflage - even the white and grey version that may not be visible to fans in the stadium - a distasteful way to honor the victims of September 11, the majority of whom were civilians.
At best, the camo is another part of a jumbled attempt to induce a feeling of patriotism and a general appreciation our country. At worst, we are equating the worst American day of this century - a day when thousands died, millions were shocked and the entire world changed - with war.
3. Appropriating September 11 as a military holiday.
As you know, the alts will be worn on September 11, 2021, the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In that regard, the "first responder" theme makes perfect sense. Numerous brave souls from NYPD, NYFD, and similar agencies were lost or injured on 9/11. But this is where they lose me with also honoring "military service members".
September 11 is not a military holiday. Yes, active-duty military members at the Pentagon were among those lost on that horrible day. Thousands more were killed or wounded in the wars (in Iraq and Afghanistan) that followed. But I'll say it again: September 11, Patriot Day, or whatever name you want to give it is not a military holiday.
Armed Forces Day (the third Saturday in May) is a military holiday. There are holidays to honor military members who served (Veteran's Day) and died (Memorial Day). Personally, I think we should be supportive of the troops - and their families - 365 days a year. But that still doesn't make September 11th a military holiday.
A better approach for Nebraska would have been to make the September 11 game about 9/11 and first responders - in a tasteful and respectful manner without camo uniforms. Honor the military in at the November 6 game (against Ohio State), the closest home date to Veteran's Day.
4. Marketing / profiting off 9/11 tribute uniforms.
Way back in 2012, when Nebraska and (then) Athletic Director Tom Osborne first dived into the alternate uniform pool, I noted there are a few key reasons to wear alternate uniforms, notably:
- Money. Uniform critic Paul Lukas views many alternate uniform campaigns as "merch dumps", designed to sell replica jerseys, t-shirts, and polos to fans. In Nebraska's case, it is worth noting that you could purchase the 2021 alternate jerseys (retail price: $120) a full week before they were debuted to the public.
- Recruiting. Oregon's rise to prominence created a belief that the top recruits want to go to schools that wear hip, cool uniforms. That is not a universal truth, but the social media posts of recruits show that they take notice of what their top schools are wearing.
- Attention. There is a reason that every alternate uniform comes with a press release, hype video, and/or photo shoot. It is an easy way for a school to stand out in a crowded field.
Those motivations create more questions, and more reasons to feel uncomfortable:
How much of the $120 retail price for an alternate jersey is going back to charities supporting first responders, active military, wounded veterans, the families of 9/11 survivors, and/or those who were injured in the attacks? Hopefully the details are still being worked out, because I have not seen anything yet.
Was the primary design motivation paying respect / tribute to those various groups? Or did the white and grey camo print do well in focus groups, and the tribute idea came second?
Finally, there are some who feel it is tacky to use 9/11 to market the program. I feel this meme - and especially this one - do a pretty powerful job of showing the potential level of cringe that can come when a university / company / product decides to co-opt 9/11 to further your brand. It is obvious not the intended message, but that is how a portion of the world interpret it.
In conclusion, using an alternative uniform to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11 was always going to be an enormous challenge. Think of the ideal target of "respectful remembrance" as the single grain of sand, surrounded by an ocean of "inappropriate cringe." I think despite their best intentions, Nebraska and Adidas splashed down somewhere in that ocean.
How would I have NU handle the 20th anniversary of 9/11, you ask? Here is my simple five-part plan for a respectful remembrance of a horrible day:
- Nebraska wears their traditional uniforms. There's no need to dress up like stormtroopers, soldiers, firefighters, or anything else.
- Add a helmet decal and/or uniform patch with the "Never Forget" ribbon. Just make sure to use a red, white, and blue one. (The yellow ribbons and car magnets that were ubiquitous in late 2001 were a "support our troops" thing. That message can have the stage to itself in November.)
- Before the game, play a tribute video and have a moment of silence.
- Re-create the famous Tunnel Walk from the 2001 Rice game, where first responders from various local agencies led the team out.
- Possibly pass the bucket at halftime to raise money for charity.
If Nebraska wanted to go farther, they could find a way to honor the names of Nebraskans, UNL alums, or others with NU ties who died on 9/11. Perhaps, they could somehow work their names into forming the "N" logo on the helmet.
I suspect my old Abel Hall neighbor, Paul "Moose" Eckna, would be delighted by that. Moose came to Lincoln from New York with a dream of walking onto the football program. It didn't work out, but he was a beautiful, vibrant soul. He worked at Cantor Fitzgerald on the 104th floor of the North tower and died on that Tuesday morning. Putting his name on a Nebraska helmet would be a bigger tribute than a camouflage jersey could ever be.