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New Uniforms and the Increasing Problem of Unreadable Numbers

Has, Under Armour, Nike, and Adidas gone too far?

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On the back the uniforms say "IF YOU CAN READ THIS, YOU HAVE X-RAY VISION"
On the back the uniforms say "IF YOU CAN READ THIS, YOU HAVE X-RAY VISION"
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

With all of the hoopla surrounding the NFL Draft, March Madness, cost of attendance, and other pressing issues of the 2015 offseason, you may have missed an article from CBS's Jon Solomon pointing out an increasingly present issue playing out on NCAA and high school gridirons: Nobody can read the damn numbers on these newfangled uniforms.

As Solomon points out, the ways in which teams and uniform outfitters are making numbers and player names harder to read are increasingly diverse: clashing color schemes and contrasts, numbers that are only a slightly lighter shade than the uniform itself (white on gray being the most common offender), numbers that are the same or similar shade or color as the uniform and are only outlined by a thin border, shiny chrome numbers against a gray uniform, tiny numbersblock numbers that are too thick, numbers up against a naturally obscuring backdrop, and whatever the hell these are. And of course there's whatever Oregon's wearing this week.

So why is this issue a big deal? Why not let the players have fun and wear what they want to wear on the field? Well, there actually are a couple of real world issues that can and have popped up.

Obscured numbers can interfere with scouting

Coaches being able to properly scout opponents is and has been part of the game going back for decades. However, in the increasingly cutthroat world of Division 1 college football where every metric of a program has to be analyzed and re-analyzed on whether it provides a competitive edge, there will be coaches trying to get around every rule they can without running afoul of the NCAA's (increasingly toothless) compliance department.

As pointed out by New Jersey City University SID Ira Thor in Solomon's article, "We've had coaches tell SIDs in a couple instances that's exactly why they do it, so they can't get scouted. It's an edge. Everybody wants to be Bill Belichick, I guess."

Still, decreasing the overall fairness of the sport is far from the biggest problem that could be caused by obscured numbers. The worst case scenario is:

Obscured numbers could negatively impact a game's outcome

Thor mentioned a situation in a Division II basketball game where referees couldn't figure out who committed a foul late in a game because they couldn't determine who wore what number on the replay monitor. They assessed the foul on player initially called for it, and he fouled out despite the possibility that he may not have committed the infraction. If his uniform's number had been readable, the initial call may have been overturned and the outcome of the game might've been very different.

Obviously, this is a hypothetical situation that has yet to play out on a D1 football field. However, with the sheer number of Division 1 football games that occur each season and the continuous displays of occasional incompetence by underpaid (and underqualified?) referees, the hypothetical worst case scenario often becomes reality.

Imagine the following scenario: Georgia Southern is undefeated and one win away from going to an Access Bowl game, but they're locked in a tight game late with Appalachian State. ASU throws a pass over the middle, and the wide receiver is met at the same time by a linebacker wearing #3 and a safety wearing #8, and one of the players hits the ASU receiver in the head and gets called for targeting by the Sun Belt crew. Problem is since GSU is wearing their gray uniforms with white letters that are difficult to read, the refs can't tell which player did it, and neither can the replay officials up in the press box. They end up calling targeting on the safety, who happens to be GSU's best defensive player, and he gets ejected. His backup is untested and not ready for the big moment, and ASU throws over the top and burns him for a long touchdown. It comes out after the game that the linebacker was actually responsible for targeting, but the hopes of GSU and the Group of Five for an Access Bowl bid are dashed.

I don't know about you, but I don't ever want to leave the outcome of any game in the hands of Sun Belt referees.

Enforcement is difficult and subjective

NCAA rules state that uniform numbers must be "clearly in distinct contrast with the color of the jersey." But what qualifies as "distinct contrast?" Ultimately, it's up to the referees. As noted in an ESPN article about rule changes before the 2014 college football season, referees can ask teams to change their uniforms if the numbers aren't readable and can force teams to lose a timeout for every quarter that they don't comply. But referees may be loathe to enforce this rule.

Ty Halpin, the NCAA associate director for player rules and officiating, appears to be aware of this problem. He told Solomon "In football, it's a lot more difficult (to enforce the rules) because you're basically telling the whole team to change uniforms before the game." That's not exactly a ringing endorsement of the referees' ability to enforce uniform compliance.

Solutions may be slow in coming

The NFL rarely, if ever, has these issues. As mentioned in Solomon's article, the NFL only allows teams to change their uniforms every 5 years, only outfits with one company (Nike), and does extensive testing of uniforms in different lighting and outdoor/indoor environments before being approved by owners.

However, with all of the money being funneled into athletic departments via Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour, it's unlikely that the NCAA, who isn't exactly in the position to tell cash-strapped athletic departments to pass up those sweet, sweet uniform contracts, will be able to get much traction for enforcing uniform change moratoriums or force all teams to go through one outfitter.

The NCAA could always try and force teams to stick with one jersey a season, but again, the uniform contract money would likely blunt any political will by athletic departments to do so. They could also try and force each team to undergo extensive testing like the NFL, but with hundreds of Division 1 squads (and even more lower division teams), setting up a widespread inspection procedure would probably be costly and unlikely. There's also the rather significant issue that the NCAA is more or less fighting for their lives in court right now and has to deal with a potential revolt by power conference schools that could see them break away and form their own association.

So realistically, it looks like the NCAA is at the mercy of schools and uniform manufacturers doing the right thing and creating uniforms with numbers that fans and referees can actually read. Good luck with that.