There is something special about a sports team uniform. As fans, we become loyal to the symbol of unity that the uniform represents. However, uniforms were created not to represent a team's symbol or culture, but rather to identify one team from another on the field or court. Uniforms are part of sports rules that leagues have created or adopted to enhance competition, but have evolved as an additional business source of revenue.
In the following article, I identify the CBA uniform provisions under the NBA, MLB, and MLS to compare what is the uniform standard, when players are expected to be in uniform, and how it relates to each sport.
The NBA's uniform provision is under article 37.2 in the CBA. Which dictates that during NBA games or practices, players are only allowed to wear the uniform issued by the player's team. Players are also expected to be in uniform during warm-ups, and when they are going to and from the locker room to the playing floor. To the NBA, the uniform standard includes all clothing and additional gear such as headbands or kneepads. However, sneakers are the only item that is not part of the uniform standard that the NBA enforces. Therefore, allowing players the autonomy to enter in sneaker endorsement contracts. For example, Kevin Duran signed with Nike for a ten year $300 million plus royalties contract.
Moreover, the NBA prohibits players from displaying commercial, promotional, or charitable name, mark or logo on the uniform, their sneakers, tattoos or their hair. We saw a recent example of the tattoo logo violation with J.R Smith's "Supreme" tattoo. The NBA requested for J.R Smith to cover his leg tattoo or he will be fine for each game he fails to do so. In an interview with Complex, Smith shared that he was not paid to get the tattoo inked, but as he explained; "[Supreme] represents the gritty, weird...personality. And that's what I represent as a person". Smith's caption on his Instagram, "[NBA] don't make people cover up Jordan logos Nike checks or anything else." Smith is referring to Marcin Gortat Jumpman logo. J.R Smith's tattoo case is an example that enforcing the uniform standard is driven by business decisions. Nike gives a massive check to the NBA every year, and presumably, does it becomes ok to ignore the uniform standard to foster business partnerships?
The MLB's uniform regulation under the CBA is written in Attachment 19 with the purpose to supplement the official Baseball Rule 3.03. Which dictates that all players need to wear only Club-issued apparel, outerwear, and equipment that is issued by a player's perspective club. The MLB also enforces that no alterations, writing or illustrations, other than as authorized are to be made to the uniform. The MLB requires players to wear the uniform on the field, during batting practice and while any in-stadium interview room up to 30 minutes following games. After looking at the MLB's uniform regulations, baseball has specific and traditional guidelines that clubs and players must follow to protect the uniform standard.
Furthermore, the uniform regulation does not mention that shoes or cleats are part of the club issued uniform, but the footwear specific rule states that at least 51% of the exterior must be the club's official color. Therefore, similar to the NBA, MLB players have the freedom to wear any brand of baseball cleats as long as they follow the 51% footwear rule. We saw an example of the 51% rule violation when Chicago Cubs' player Ben Zobrist wore all black New Balance cleats on May 2, 2018, against the Colorado Rockies. The MLB proceeded by warning Zobrist that his action broke the CBA agreement. MLB followed with an official statement regarding the footwear violation to ESPN:
"If players have complaints about the regulation, they should contact their union which negotiated them. We have informed the union that we are prepared to negotiate rules providing players with more flexibility, and that issue is currently being discussed as part of a larger discussion about apparel and equipment."
Unlike the NBA or MLB, the MLS does not have a uniform provision bargained between the union and MLS. If you look at the MLS CBA article 4 Management Rights, "the Union expressly waived its statutory rights to bargain on-field equipment and uniforms and regulations relating to play or practice". The MLS uniform rules and regulations are enforced by the International Football Association Board "Laws of the Game 2018-2019", Law 4 Players' Equipment.
It makes sense why MLS and the Union do not bother in bargaining for a uniform provision. It is in the MLS best interest to be considered the Division 1 soccer league under the United States Soccer Federation. The USSF must meet FIFA's rules and regulations to be part of international competitions, and therefore, MLS must comply with USSF to compete in international games such as the CONCACAF Champions Cup. The Union, players and the MLS understand that they must follow the Laws of the Game that IFAB establishes to be part of the global game.
I learned from my Sports Law Professor Andrew Bondarowicz that if you follow the money, you can understand why organizations make their decisions. In the case of the CBA uniform provisions, the MLS follows the IFAB uniform rules to continue as the Divison 1 soccer league in the United States. The MLB is currently looking to change their uniform rules to provide players with more flexibility, which seems that such strategy will attract a younger audience. And the NBA uniform rules are enforced to continue with their business source of revenue with their partners. However, as fans, we continue to fall in love with the symbol of our team's uniform and buy it to show the passionate loyalty we have towards them.