Basketball Shorts Are Longer Than Football Pants

Posted on May 29, 2015

It’s true. Basketball shorts are officially longer than football pants. The difference is subtle, slightly less than half an inch. But I can’t help but think that the evolution is meaningful. That it could have an impact on my work. I’m someone who aims to find ways to decrease the stigma in assistive products (for people with differing abilities). Athletes clearly have differing (>) abilities. And I want the evolution of their basketball shorts and football pants to fascinate you… the stigma, the aesthetic, the function, the animalistic manliness. This is a perfect example of form meeting function, form interfering with function, and function interfering with form.

Basketball Shorts

Michael Jordan Basketball Shorts

In 1989, Michael Jordan had his basketball shorts tailored long enough so that when he bent at the waist, he could tug at the hem for a good resting position. Shortly thereafter, Scottie Pippen requested a pair, just like Mike’s. Jordan’s simple tailoring request truly changed the way the game of basketball looked and the style in which it was played.

Interestingly, Jordan’s longer shorts evolved so much throughout the past decade, that they occasionally interfere with the game. The longer the shorts, the more players will encounter tripping and dribbling issues. And as I write this post, in the summer of 2015 as Lebron and the Cavs are about to head to the finals, it’s easy to see that the style of these shorts is finally at a crossroads. It’s like Lebron recently said:

I might play in some small shorts this year. Pay my homage to the ’80s, to Dr. J and John Stockton. I don’t think it’s going to catch on, but I’m going to do it one game, maybe opening night. I can’t go all the way up (the legs), though. Athletes today are built a little differently in the legs.

And Lebron is not alone.

Chris Obekpa Shorts

Chris Obekpa of St. Johns tucks his basketball shorts into his spandex shorts. He says the length of the shorts absorb sweat and become heavy, restricting him as he runs. Obekpa found that tailoring and band-rolling weren’t enough to create the mobility he needed, so he, and he alone went a step further.

basketball band rolling

But band-rolling is also not new. About a decade ago, the NBA required shorts fit at least one inch above the knee. Many players’ shorts were too long to meet that standard, so they began rolling their waist bands to make them shorter. This trend continues to this day, so much so that Under Armor became the first company to place their logo upside down on the inside of the band, so when rolled, the logo became visible. Paul Lukas of Uni Watch recently wrote an interesting piece about the trend of band-rolling; who does it, who doesn’t and why.

Paul Lukas Band Rolling

Lukas found that some players band-roll for function and others do it simply for aesthetics. But what about when the aesthetic becomes the function?

I started doing it because my shorts were too big,” Temple’s Will Cummings said. “Then I kept doing it, even after I got new shorts. It’s kind of the mentality of it — when you flip the waistband over, that’s when you get into game mode.

If you’re not aware of Uni Watch, you have to check it out. It’s one of my favorite websites. Paul Lukas will treat you to truly original sports trivia. My favorite tidbit is that C.C. Sabathia has worn more pinstripes than any other Yankee (just think about it, then it will blow your mind).

Uni Watch is a media project that deconstructs the finer points of sports uniforms in obsessive and excruciating detail. It has nothing to do with fashion — it’s about documenting and maintaining the visual history of sports design, and about minutiae fetishism as its own reward.

I reached out to Paul, explaining that trends in sport often mirror trends in assistive products. I sent him my MLB Pitchers Padded Cap post. And he was intrigued. And I’m so thrilled that he was into chatting about trends he’s seen in both football and basketball.

Paul quickly noted that despite the length of the basketball shorts, the same amount of skin has always been visible. When players wore shorts with a 1” inseam, they also wore socks over their calf, rendered in team colors. These days, socks are so short that they are no longer a part of the uniform. This is something Paul would love to see reintroduced to the NBA. Uniform socks in uniform colors.


Image:  Evolution of Ball by Andrew Bergmann

Football Pants

The NFL introduced a rule for the 2013 season making both knee and thigh pads mandatory. In the decades leading up to this rule, players had slowly started shunning padding, both for aesthetics and to gain mobility. Football is a fast game, players want to be as light as possible. Padding is obviously restrictive. So in 1995, when the NFL changed hip, thigh and knee pad rule from ‘mandatory’ to recommended, you can imagine how quickly players stripped down their uniforms. Thus the phenomenon Paul Lukas aptly titled the “Biker Shorts Plague”.

Biker Shorts Plague Football Pants

Paul doesn’t like the look of ‘football shorts’. Historically, football pants have always been knickers, which are supposed to cover the knee. He also feels that the whole balance of how socks are designed is off when pants are too short. So what has happened since the knee and thigh pad rule was reintroduced in 2013? It’s quite fascinating. I like to think of it as a reverse mullet of the knee, even though it does remain business in the front and party in the back. The front of the pant covers the knee (allowing for padding), while the back of the football pant rises above the knee, making it a short?

Football Pants

And this is what is so amazing about sport. Trends, technology and needs constantly evolve. And it does not matter what each product morphs into. The trend is always set by those who play the game. This is actually contrary to the fashion world, where we wear the products, but have no say in how they evolve. And this is why I feel like assistive products have more potential to mirror a ballgame than a runway. Bodies will always determine need in assistive products, that’s what makes them assistive. Now if only we could find our own Michael Jordan.


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