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The Sports World’s Blue-Collar Cosplay

College and professional teams are adopting working-class mores as a marketing gimmick.

Eastern Michigan football head coach Chris Creighton wore a work shirt during the Quick Lane Bowl in December. (Carlos Osorio/AP/Shutterstock)

Earlier this month, the New York Giants held a press conference to introduce their new head coach, Joe Judge. In between the usual football clichés about how the Giants will “play aggressive” and have a “physical attitude” under his leadership, Judge dipped his toe into the pool of class consciousness. “I want this team to reflect this area. That is blue-collar. It’s hard work,” he said. “We’re gonna come to work every day and grind it out the way they do in their jobs every day.” That same day, Mississippi State University announced that it had hired Mike Leach as its new head football coach. The school’s athletic director, John Cohen, issued a statement praising Leach for, among other things, his “blue-collar approach” to football.

These were just the latest examples of a phenomenon that the sports world shares with politics: a strong desire to be associated with the working class, often in ways that strain logic and credulity.

The sports world’s blue-collar roots are real enough. The Green Bay Packers got their name from a meatpacking company that originally sponsored the team. The Detroit Pistons got theirs because their first owner ran a piston foundry. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ logo is based on the “Steelmark” originally used by U.S. Steel. And before the days of multimillion-dollar contracts, pro athletes routinely worked regular jobs during the off-season—often in blue-collar trades—to make ends meet.

Those days are long gone, but that hasn’t stopped teams from trying to establish their working-class bona fides. While the trope isn’t new, it has become unavoidable in recent years, especially in the realm of team marketing and branding.

For example, when the Cleveland Browns unveiled a new set of uniforms in 2015, a press release explained that the topstitching on the jerseys exemplified Cleveland’s “hard-working, blue-collar demeanor.” That same year, the Milwaukee Bucks unveiled new uniforms with a blue stripe inside the collar, which the team said was “representative of the blue-collar work ethic of not only the Bucks, but also of the city and state that the team proudly represents.”

In 2016, the University of Kentucky added blue collars to uniforms throughout its athletics program, “to emphasize the work ethic of the people of Kentucky.” That was the same year the University of Oregon’s football team wore jerseys with blue collars for the first game of the season; a tweet from the team said this represented “blue-collar ethics.”

In 2017, the Pistons (now owned by a private equity investor) unveiled a new logo with a bolder blue border that was “representative of the blue-collar work ethic of the city of Detroit,” the team explained. Later that year, the Boise State University football team’s new uniforms featured the words “Blue Collar” embroidered on the jerseys’ blue collars. “This program is really founded on this blue-collar mentality,” said coach Bryan Harsin, just in case anyone didn’t get the point.

Today, the University of Alabama’s basketball team uses #BlueCollarBasketball as a social media hashtag. In addition, coach Nate Oats and his staff award a hard hat to a player after each victory, and the hats have been used as promotional giveaway items for fans during games.

We all understand the underlying message here: Sports is basically a form of physical labor, so an athlete is arguably closer in spirit to, say, a construction worker or a roofer than to some pencil-pusher who sits on his butt all day (like, um, a journalist). Since hard work and selflessness are laudable virtues, why not honor the people who symbolize that?

But it’s not that simple. There are lots of hard-working people (and, for that matter, lots of lazy people) in every field, not just in the hard-hat trades. It’s also worth asking who’s being honored by all this working-class wannabe-ism. When Judge, the new Giants coach, talked about the team reflecting its “blue-collar” fans, he may have been trying to ingratiate himself with certain types of people, but he was really honoring himself. He was essentially saying, “You know all those mechanics and factory workers and roofers out there? I’m just like them. And my team is going to be just like them.”

That’s somewhere between marketing spin and a patronizing caricature. It’s true that many athletes come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and coaches like Judge may work them as hard as any day laborer, but they have advantages that the day laborer lacks. When Judge and his players finish their hard day of toil, they can soak in the Jacuzzi and be tended to by a staff of professional trainers, masseuses, and therapists. They have 24/7 access to first-rate medical care. They never have to worry about making their mortgage or car loan payments, or the cost of daycare, or their pay getting docked if they miss work due to an illness or family emergency. They never have to worry about their work hours changing from week to week, or going bankrupt if they lose their job, or having to work until they drop because they’ll never save enough to retire.

Top-tier athletes and coaches are elite professionals who are the best in the world at what they do, so those perks come with the job—fair enough. But you can’t enjoy those perks, package the entire thing in stadiums filled with high-priced luxury boxes bought by corporate executives, sell the broadcast rights to it for billions of dollars, and then call yourself “blue-collar.” That’s just piggybacking on the perceived values of working-class people without facing the actual challenges of living as one. This reduces an entire class to a marketing prop or totem of authenticity. It’s a class-based version of stolen valor.

At least two college football coaches have recently taken this a step further by actually dressing up as blue-collar workers. Eastern Michigan University football coach Chris Creighton and his staff wore name-tagged work shirts, similar to what a janitor or mechanic might wear, during a bowl game last month, and Nevada football coach Jay Norvell did the same thing at a practice a few days later. The ironies of this cosplay are particularly rich given that Creighton and Norvell, who both make about $500,000 per year, ply their trade on the backs of unpaid student laborers.

All of this is a reflection of how in sports, as elsewhere in America, the discourse of class division has become cultural, not socioeconomic. “Blue-collar” is now an attitude, a lifestyle, a brand, a hashtag. It’s a canvas onto which you can project whichever values you choose (even if you’re talking about privileged athletes and coaches who’ll likely never punch a time clock or wear a hard hat for the rest of their lives). In short, it’s mythmaking—something that’s always been at the core of sports.

This particular myth, like so many others, is laced with nostalgia. It’s part of a broader American longing for a romanticized past of hardscrabble factory towns where blue-collar workers were paid fair wages and got good pensions. And what made all of that possible? The same thing that allowed professional athletes to stop working off-season jobs: They formed labor unions and negotiated higher salaries. So if teams really want to support the working class, maybe they should stop with the blue-collar pretensions and start embroidering a different slogan into their jersey collars: “Unionize now.”

Correction: A previous version of this article cited a video of the University of Cincinnati basketball team wearing hard hats and safety vests. The video is from 2018, not 2020, and the team’s arena was under renovation at the time.