Courtesy Chicago Bears

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  • For years, teams have been turning to old-time jerseys for reasons of nostalgia (and marketing). As they don their 1936 uniforms in Week 4 of the NFL’s 100th season, the Bears are acknowledging a decades-long wrong—the league’s unspoken 12-year ban on black players
By Paul Lukas
September 27, 2019

The Chicago Bears will be wearing 1936 throwback uniforms this Sunday as part of the team’s season-long centennial celebration. There’s nothing unusual about that, of course. Barely a day goes by nowadays without some team, somewhere, wearing a throwback uni, whether as a nod to retro style or as a way to showcase the team’s visual history.

But the Bears have done something new. In a two-minute video segment posted to the team’s website and social media accounts on Tuesday night, team chairman George McCaskey and five players—quarterbacks Mitch Trubisky and Chase Daniel, defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, linebacker Danny Trevathan, and tight end Trey Burton—addressed the uncomfortable truth that the NFL was a segregated, all-white league in 1936, thanks to a 12-year ban on black players that ran from 1934 through 1945. That means the black players currently on the Bears roster, including Hicks, Trevathan and Burton, will be the first African-Americans ever permitted to wear this uniform on the field.

I’ve been writing about uniforms for more than 20 years. To my knowledge, this is the first time a team in any sport has provided this type of historical context for a throwback uniform. (The closest thing to it is Major League’s Baseball’s occasional use of Negro League throwbacks, which send their own unmistakable message.) The video is all the more remarkable for the way it shows players and ownership speaking with a unified voice about a shameful but unavoidable aspect of the team’s history.

The impetus for the video appears to have come from a recent SB Nation article by Chicago sports historian Jack Silverstein, which showed that the NFL’s own account of the league’s segregated period has often been a bit blurry and concluded that Bears founder George S. Halas probably had larger role in the black player ban than has previously been acknowledged. One of the most powerful moments in the video is when McCaskey—Halas’s grandson — says, “Integration of the NFL, and the Bears, was too long in coming.” To see him saying that, while flanked by several black players, amounts to a uniform-based truth and reconciliation moment.

I’ll leave it to others to re-examine the NFL’s segregated period and Halas’s culpability for it. As a uniform columnist, I’ll focus on what this all says about throwback uniforms.

First, some quick background: Throwback games have been with us for nearly three decades now. The first one was held by MLB’s Chicago White Sox in 1990. The first NFL team to dabble with throwbacks was the 1993 Jets (they sort of half-assed it by putting their old helmet logo on their then-current green helmet shell), and then the whole league went retro the following year to mark the NFL’s 75th anniversary.

In the years since, throwbacks have become a standard phenomenon across the sports landscape. They tend to be popular with fans and are often bundled into larger marketing promotions that feature retro scoreboard graphics, period-appropriate concession prices and stadium music, and so on. The net effect is to create the image of a simpler, more innocent time.

The Bears’ video is an important reminder that the past was often neither simple nor innocent, especially for marginalized communities. The statement provides framing and context that serves as a valuable corrective to our temptation to view the past through the hazy lens of romantic nostalgia.

The video also reminds us that sports is often about mythmaking, but myths can be slanted. Consider, for example, that the original 1936 uniform that served as the basis for this Sunday’s Bears throwback is often referred to by uni aficionados as the “Bronko Nagurski uniform,” because of an iconic rendering of Nagurski wearing it. It had never occurred to me, or probably to most other fans, that we might be calling that uniform by someone else’s name today if the NFL’s ban on black players hadn’t been in effect in 1936.

Will other teams follow the Bears’ lead and create a new, more historically aware phase of throwback programming? There are certainly plenty of opportunities for it. The Packers’ current throwback design, which they wore just last week, dates back to 1937—smack in the middle of the league’s segregated era. Over on the baseball diamond, the Cincinnati Reds have celebrated their 150th anniversary this season by wearing a whopping 15 different throwback designs—seven of which predate Jackie Robinson’s MLB debut. Nobody, myself included, said anything about that. It’s time to rethink that approach.

The Bears are putting their money where their mouth is by auctioning off some of this Sunday’s throwback jerseys and donating the proceeds to player-selected community organizations—a good way to connect the past to the present, and to atone for past transgressions. As Trevathan says in the video, “Our organization is glorious, but it is not perfect.” By the standards of modern sports marketing, that’s a big admission. Here’s hoping other teams take a similar approach with their own throwback uniform programs.

Paul Lukas writes about uniforms for SI. You can read more of his uniform writing on his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for his mailing list so you won’t miss any of his SI columns. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program check out his Uni Watch merchandise, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.

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