Go to any professional sporting event and it’s a common site: Adults, many of them middle-aged, wearing jerseys with their favorite player’s name and number on the back. You’ll spot a multitude of Manning #10 blue jerseys at New York Giants games; a boatload of Bryant #24 gold jerseys at Lakers games; a congregation of Crosby #87 black jerseys at Penguins games; and a redundancy of Ronaldo #7 white jerseys at Real Madrid matches.
Last weekend at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., hundreds of New England Patriots fans showed up with blue or white Aaron Hernandez #81 jerseys. Too angry or ashamed to wear the garments, they held them in their hands or hid them in bags while waiting in a line to exchange them, free of charge, for the jerseys of other popular Patriots players such as Tom Brady or Vince Wilfork or Rob Gronkowski. Players who, unlike Hernandez, were not recently arrested and charged with first-degree murder in connection with a shooting death.
One of the uncomfortable moments for any sports fan devoted since childhood is actually more of a progression. As the years pass and you find yourself gaining chronological distance on those you are rooting for, the fan-athlete relationship can begin to feel awkward or unbalanced. You may still love the sport and the team, but the dynamic of that interest is irreparably altered.
Or maybe it is for some. Although I would feel silly wearing a jersey with a player’s name and number, there are plenty of folks in my age demographic who apparently don’t share that hesitation. A majority of those exchanging their Hernandez jerseys looked to be older than the 23-year-old tight end, and a number appeared gray or bald or wrinkled enough to be contemporaries of Hernandez’s parents.
As the Hernandez couture exchange demonstrated, there are plenty of reasons besides silliness that argue against anyone 35 or older purchasing team apparel emblazoned with a player’s name and number. Trades and free agency often make specialized attire fashionably correct for just a few seasons, as do the threat of career-ending injuries or simply a short career span (something for those buying the jerseys of NFL running backs to consider). Suspicions or suspensions for steroids and other illegal performance-enhancing drugs can also lead to jersey-buyers’ remorse, and so can career downturns (Exhibit A: Those who shelled out money for Jason Bay jerseys when he came to the Mets).
But as Hernandez and other athletes before him have shown, fans buying customized jerseys also have to check police logs as well as boxscores to keep tabs on how their favorite players are doing. Judging by the healthy presence of Jason Kidd attire at Knicks’ games last season, DWIs and domestic abuse are not serious enough offenses to warrant jersey disallegiance. Leaving a team via free agency is apparently more damning, as those Laker fans Tweeting photos of themselves burning Dwight Howard jerseys this week reminded.
With so many factors conspiring to make customized jerseys a risky form of discretionary spending, it’s somewhat mind-boggling that middle-aged fans would still pay good money on items that often stay relevant shorter than Apple products. But this is America, so each Chris Davis #19 orange Orioles jersey to his own.
Still, I feel a comfort in knowing the only personalized sports jersey I own is one with my own last name and number (23) on the back of it. It is a soccer jersey I wore in high school, when we convinced our coach to order the customized shirts as long as we paid for them. The jersey now sits companionless in the bottom of a drawer, likely safe from an exchange line but awaiting a starvation diet in order to fit properly again.