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The Mercy Rule

Neon Waters Run Deep

adidas's new college basketball uniforms are just a dumb thing to look at and crack some jokes about. But the only compensation the athletes wearing them get is the enjoyment of the enhanced comfort provided by the breakthrough wicking polymers.
Κείμενο David Roth

There's nothing fundamentally offensive, really, about the new Odd Future Stone Wash Pajama Zubaz uniforms that adidas rolled out on Thursday, in preparation for the NCAA tournament later this month. Aesthetically, maybe, there are some things to disagree with: The color schemes that are, apparently, based on flavors Gatorade invented, like “Frost Cascade Crash”; the shorts that resemble something a Jacksonville-area steroid dealer might've worn in 1991; the Notre Dame uniform, which looks like a Shamrock Shake with a tall dude trapped inside it. These are reasonable things to notice and take issue with, although it's useful to remember that these uniforms were made with that purpose in mind—ruffling people square enough to care about college basketball uniforms, and ruffling them into using the word “adidas” if at all possible. This has worked—I've now done it twice in this column, and did it elsewhere yesterday—although it would have worked less well were there anything else to talk about in sports right now. So, mission accomplished. Remind me to tell you about adidas’s patented ClimaCool Zones, an exciting new fabric technology that might well solve forever whatever pseudoproblem it purports to address, for all I know.


There's a certain baseline squickiness to nonstories like this, which are essentially and inescapably reheated press releases served with a side salad of Hot Take. It helps (if that's the word) that these uniforms are undeniably something-a-skateboarding-cartoon-dinosaur-would-wear gaudy and legitimately strange. But the conversation they generate is mostly cryptopromotional noise. It's familiar, too—think of those popular videos that get posted to every traffic-seeking site on the web along with a couple paragraphs about how stupid this video meme is; think of the branded factoids and drowsily rereported press releases that are the stock in trade of the widely loathed ESPN Brand Enthusiast Darren Rovell. These things are forgettable spurts of spume generated by the internet's relentless, affectless churn. It’s hard to know what percentage of the web consists of ostentatiously and unapologetically content-free content like this, but it's a two-digit number that probably starts with a seven or an eight and ends with a LeAnn Rimes upskirt.

Of course, all this is easy enough to tune out. It demands not to be cared about, and that is a pleasant enough demand to oblige, even with sports in general passing through a dreary in-between period, during which neither football nor baseball is on. The queasy part of being adrift on this sea of nonpotable content, though, is not just the unrelenting roll of it, although that doesn't help. It's in the corrosive, ethical pH of the noise ocean itself. In the case of the uniforms, which are, again, just a dumb thing to look at and crack some jokes about and then forget, there is the problem of the student athletes in those uniforms helping adidas leverage its unique ClimaCool Zone-style innovations for whatever marketing points are there to be achieved through something like that.

Enjoying the enhanced comfort provided by adidas’s breakthrough wicking polymers is about all that the people playing basketball on national television in these uniforms will receive in the way of compensation. If college basketball’s amateurism is a sham, the NCAA is ardent enough in its sham-policing to guarantee that players don't receive revenue from the multimillion dollar sneaker and apparel deals like the ones that the teams in these Jolly Rancher-themed uniforms signed with adidas. The case for paying college athletes—or paying them in more than conditional, year-to-year athletic scholarships and the valuable preparation-for-the-workplace experience of living under the preening, picayune, and arbitrary authority of the NCAA—is not quite as obvious as it seems. There are some nine-figure outliers, but most college sports programs are not profitable, and the ones that make money fund the ones that don’t; the system is not set up so that there's money left over to compensate players. This is the substance of the nausea that accompanies nonstories like OMG/LOL/FAILTHESE UNIFORMS; the itchy sense that there is a basic and willfully ignored injustice behind all this froth.

The NCAA spends a great deal of money on an enforcement regime designed to make sure that players like Ben McLemore, a freshman star who will wear the Zubaz Jams for Kansas this March, are not in any way compensated for their labor on the court or for the reflected glory they provide to companies like adidas. The University of Kansas will sell jerseys with McLemore’s number on the back but not his name; they and adidas will profit from that. An avatar of him will appear in video games, in this uniform and with his characteristics, and people other than McLemore will profit from that, too. It happens that McLemore grew up in wrenching poverty, which doesn't do much to take the edge off any of this. But McLemore's specific circumstances fit within the broader, generalized situation concealed beneath this rolling noise—the accepted, but not strictly acceptable, way things are. The chatter about uniforms that fills blogs and tweets rides on top of a churn of feudal profit. These are deep waters, and even on the quietest weeks, the gentler motion on the surface is enough to make you seasick.


Previously: That’s So Jordan