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The Most Radical Art in American Sports Has Been Cut

Rick Diamond/Getty

The technical term for a work of art that contains itself, or something like itself, is mise en abyme. (Literally “to place into an abyss,” but commonly translated as “mirror in the text.”) A painting of people posing for a painting (or even containing a curtain in one corner) is deploying mise en abyme. A story that contains the telling of stories within it—from Boccaccio’s Decameron to Don Quixote to the works of Jorge Luis Borges and Paul Auster—is deploying mise en abyme. The films of Charlie Kaufman, such as Adaptation, tend to deploy mise en abyme. Stephen Colbert’s portrait, which features him standing in front of a smaller portrait of himself which features him standing in front of a still-smaller portrait of himself, is deploying mise en abyme.

And a dolphin on a football helmet who himself wears a football helmet is a deployment of mise en abyme.

When the Miami Dolphins play the Saints in New Orleans Monday night, the wider public will be introduced to the new Dolphins logo, which is the first to substantially break from the one introduced when the team debuted in 1966. Though the Dolphins have had four previous logos, all contained the same basic template: an aqua-colored dolphin, looking as though he has just left the water on a jump, in front of an orange circle and wearing a football helmet (albeit one without the customary facemask.) Extremely notably, this helmet was white with an orange “M,” for Miami, on it—it was, in other words, not the same helmet as the helmet on which it appeared. By contrast, in the new logo, the orange circle and the dolphin remain, but the dolphin is now more horizontal, looking as though he is about to jump, and, more importantly, the helmet is gone.

The old logo, with helmet.

This is disappointing—and not only because, with every week seeming to bring new revelations about the deleterious effects of football-related head trauma, the dolphin should really be wearing a helmet. For the past half-century the Dolphins have had the most compelling logo in professional sports. Stars like Larry Csonka, Dan Marino, and Reggie Bush have been Dolphins wearing helmets with dolphins wearing helmets—different helmets. It was, in short, gratuitously weird, a vestige of the implicitly countercultural, indelibly 1960s-tinged American Football League where it started. 

The AFL began play in 1960 after the NFL did not let oil baron Lamar Hunt have his own team. The league was self-consciously funky, with a looser style of play that included—thanks in part to a slightly differently shaped ball—a good deal more downfield passing. It was the league of Sid Gilman’s deep-throwing San Diego Chargers and the vertical offense of Al Davis’ Oakland Raiders. And it was cooler than the stodgy NFL—argyle endzones, “Broadway” Joe Namath, great logos. The original Buffalo Bills logo is a minimalist marvel; Pat Patriot, in tri-cornered hat and Revolutionary War irregular gear, adorned the helmets of Boston’s (later New England’s) players. The Dolphins were the ninth AFL franchise, and the only one founded after the league’s inception but before its historic agreement to merge with the NFL. They were, in other words, the literal last gasp of the AFL’s independent spirit.

The new logo, sans protection.

This year’s logo change—part of a broader rebranding that has also seen the introduction of new white uniforms—was not taken lightly, according to Claudia Lezcano, the Dolphins’ chief marketing officer. “We wanted to have a look toward the future but be anchored in our iconic past,” she told me. She noted that the new logo’s colors are actually more in keeping with the paler hues of the pre-1997 logos. The “M” on the helmet, previously never spelled out, now appears in the word “MIAMI” on the back of the uniform. The dolphin’s new horizontal postures reflects the team’s desire for “the dolphin to be in a more powerful and ascending position,” she said, noting, “The moment of most power for the dolphin is right before it breaks through the water.” (“We actually consulted with dolphin experts for this process,” she added.) Various logos under consideration did keep the helmet, but the team ultimately went with one without it. “What we saw in this logo,” she concluded, “is it’s very powerful, ascending, looking to the future.”

But what the new logo adds in brute force, it subtracts in mystery. Eileen Joy, an English professor at Southern Illinois University who has taught mise en abyme, explained the device to me. “It calls perspective into question,” she said. “It thrusts the viewer into a vertigo of perspective where all of a sudden you don’t know if up is really up, down is really down—who’s really wearing the helmet.”

Other sports logos have used mise en abyme: Pat Patriot is in the process of hiking a football; several basketball mascots, most famously the Boston Celtics’ Lucky the Leprechaun, themselves play basketball. But none are remotely as formally daring as a dolphin who wears a helmet that is not the same as the helmet he appears on. “Call it repetition with a difference,” said Joy. “It’s a mimickry—the miniature dolphin wearing the helmet is imitating the larger helmet, but something’s not quite right.” She added, “It’s attempting to depict itself, but really what happens is you start to realize, ‘Is everything just representational?’ When you start to notice it, you start to lose your grip on reality.”

The new logo does represent the culmination of a shift in the types of logos pro sports teams seek out. “These older logos,” said Paul Lukas, an ESPN columnist and proprietor of Uni Watch (as well as a former columnist for this website,) “are what I consider the Bugs Bunny school of logo design. You had these characters that looked fun and smart and clever. They didn’t just beat you by pummeling you by physical strength. They beat you by outsmarting you—like Bugs Bunny would do.”

The new Dolphins look is not typical of logo trends in that the dolphin was not made to be fiercer—most new logos, Lukas noted, have moved “toward things that have a lot of aggression.” (In the NFL alone, one can look at the evolutions of Arizona’s cardinal, Atlanta’s falcon, and St. Louis’ ram to see this trend.) “They left behind a child-like, less mature logo and moved to a more adult logo,” he opined. “That seems like a reasonable evolution for a team to want to have. It’s not what I would call a bad logo.”

But the old Dolphins logo, in addition to possessing the sort of mystery that only mise en abyme can intimate, contained a cheekiness emblematic of an earlier, more laid-back time in the world of professional sports. Its disappearance is yet further evidence that that era is gone. Said Lukas: “There’s a certain charm to a dolphin wearing a helmet.”

  1. Technically the dolphin could be female, but since all Dolphins have been male and the dolphin is supposed to represent the Dolphins, I am going to assume it is a male dolphin.