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Two Sundays ago, as I, completely stunned, watched the Philadelphia Eagles advance to the Super Bowl after beating the Minnesota Vikings, I wore a men’s football jersey my brother had given me for Christmas. He had ordered it from China from an Instagram ad; it was the hilarious knockoff to end all knockoffs. Three sizes too big, a slime green color, and completely inflexible, it did not look good when I tried tucking it into my black jeans. The mysterious synthetic material caused me to sweat through it in mere minutes, and at halftime I noticed that crucial areas of the jersey were see-through. Did I mention that the stitching on the logo scraped painfully against my chest every time I moved?
Needless to say, I plan on wearing it again on Super Bowl Sunday.
I’ve been gifted all manner of sports apparel over the years. I have men’s hats, men’s hoodies, T-shirts customized with my name, and even once — a true Philly stereotype — men’s Eagles sweatpants. It feels normal to watch sports in a loose jersey because watching sports is supposed to be a comfortable affair, one where you could theoretically drink six too many beers but still feel at ease in your clothes. Sports apparel gives fans a chance to get close to their most beloved players while leaving all the hard work to them.
So every season, when I think about re-upping my fan gear (hey, the design on those uniforms change with surprising frequency, not to mention the players), I’m confronted with the same conflict: Why is women’s sports apparel so hideous, ill-fitting, and uncool?
In my dresser through five full seasons, I had stored the women’s version of what would have been a simple crewneck Eagles T-shirt for men. The shirt was tailored to the rough shape of a cardboard box with boobs. It had mesh armpit holes. And as if by some sort of bizarre prerequisite, it — like all women’s sports apparel — featured a conservative V-neck that has never flattered anyone. I’ve seen women’s Eagles shirts encrusted with diamonds, Eagles halter tops and cold-shoulder tops, Eagles wedge heels with leopard print lining. Alyssa Milano’s Touch by Alyssa Milano sports fashion line actually features a long-sleeved shirt that is half plain cotton tee and half doily.
Searching this year for what might be a slight upgrade for my poorly made Cunningham jersey, which didn’t seem so hard, I landed upon a baby pink Nick Foles jersey with silver iridescent numbers. And though the NFL loves nothing more than signaling to fans that it is extremely aware of breast cancer, purchasing this jersey gives nothing to no one. Your $100 serves only as a donation to your own personal humiliation. I turned instead to non-licensed retailers thinking that maybe I’d have more luck.
Like the entire world about the Eagles’s potential to make it to the Super Bowl, I was wrong.
On sites like Etsy, Teespring, Zazzle, and Redbubble, the graphic text-emblazoned T-shirt boom is thriving. A cursory search for Eagles tees on any of these sites (and the dozens more custom-made, on-demand T-shirt companies that pop up in your Facebook feed advertising algorithmic “No One Does It Like An Evans Girl” shirts) yields sports merch so wonky and bootleg that it would make the Philly Frenetic proud. It’s easy to get around trademark issues when printing ringer tees with eagle clipart and the tagline “Sundays are for the birds.” It’s an Eagles shirt, just without the Eagles part.
Unsurprisingly, the graphic T-shirt fad mirrors the same frustration you’d find when scrolling the more official sites for women’s apparel. Without licensing access, though, independent T-shirt retailers are forced to get more creative. Instead of settling for only a terrible fit and chintzy doodads to adorn their shirts, unlicensed women’s sports merchandisers design almost deliriously sexist gear. “I love big sacks, a tight end, and a strong D,” one reads. “I love dick-ing around and placing last in fantasy football,” says another. And for your beer-bellied sitcom husband to wear while he’s bunkered in his man cave: “I love (when) my wife (lets me watch football).” From afar, the joke is: I love my wife. Up close: She tells me what to do. I was most surprised when I spotted this shirt at an official merch booth at last year’s Pro Bowl.
Scouring the internet for even remotely wearable women’s sports apparel also manages to unearth contrary messaging. An Etsy shop sells “Hooray football! Pass the thing and do the touchdown” in a digitally rendered image of a T-shirt alongside a pink ball cap; “I’m just here for the commercials,” says another. And my personal favorite: “Some people wait their whole life to meet their favorite player. I’m dating mine.” The football graphic on that one is wearing a hair bow. It’s unclear to me why anyone would insist on advertising that they don’t like sports, but if you do, just Google “women’s sports apparel.” You’ll have more than enough crap to choose from.
With the help of the internet, the slogan T-shirt trend was always bound to spiral into uncanny valley delirium. Because of the rash of on-demand T-shirt companies, “But First, Rosé” can follow up any activity of your choosing: “Gardening...But First, Rosé”; “Basting A Ham...But First, Rosé”; “Straight Up Murdering A Few People...But First, Rosé.” It’s frustrating, though, that with all the possibility these retailers could provide in an area that is already such a desert for choice, female sports fans are still relegated to scraps, cast-offs, and diminishing, not-even-funny jokes. All I want to do is look like a normal fan during the game. No crocheted arm holes, no sexist slogans, no idiot necklines.
If I could ask for two things on Super Bowl Sunday, they would be: 1) an Eagles win, and 2) something to wear that is normal, good, not bedazzled, or pink. I can hardly believe it myself, but for the first time, I have more hope for the Eagles.