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Under Armour's Northwestern uniforms stir controversy

Under Armour Inc.Northwestern WildcatsPhil KnightKevin Plank

Update: Story is updated below with Under Armour comment.

 Is it patriotism or poor taste?

That's the Internet debate after Northwestern University showed off new, flag-themed football uniforms designed to honor veterans and raise money and awareness for the Wounded Warrior Project.

Uniforms designed by the team's outfitter, Baltimore-based Under Armour, somewhat resemble the sports apparel brand's flag-inspired "Maryland Pride" uniforms for the University of Maryland. However, the Northwestern uniforms feature gray jerseys with shoulders draped in stars and stripes and a helmet with American flag stars covering one side and red and white stripes on the other.

But critics say the design goes too far, appearing to splatter the helmet, gloves and cleats with streaks of blood. Some are offended by the use of flag elements at all and say the appearance of flag desecration is worse.

Others questioned what all the fuss is about.

The Wildcats plan to wear the uniforms just once, for a Nov. 16 home game in Evanston, Ill., then auction them on the university's website with all proceeds going to the Wounded Warrior Project, which has been helping injured service members since Sept. 11, 2001. The university also will donate a portion of the profits of the sale of replica jerseys to the nonprofit, which could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Northwestern University said in a statement Tuesday that the special uniforms' pattern "was inspired by the appearance of a flag that has flown proudly over a long period of time. We apologize that the design element could be misinterpreted."

Under Armour, which also drew criticism for the unusual nature of the Maryland Pride uniforms for founder Kevin Plank's alma mater, chose not to directly address interpretations of its latest design.

The sports apparel maker echoed the university's comments, describing the design as "an authentic distressed pattern which depicts a flag that has flown proudly over a long period of time," the company said in a statement.

On Wednesday, Under Armour sent out an updated statement saying the company's five-year partnership with the Wounded Warrior Project shows "our deepest gratitude" for the bravery of men and women who serve the country.

"It has provided us with a platform to offer financial support to these veterans," said Matt Mirchin, executive vice president of global marketing, noting that the company works with the non-profit to design patriotic uniforms.

Mirchin said the blue and red patterns on Northwestern's uniforms were inspired by "images of actual American flags that have been flown around the world in harsh conditions over extended periods of time, as a further tribute to the indomitable spirit of our nation and its protectors. The suggestion that these uniforms are depicting streaks of blood is completely false and uninformed."

"I would venture to guess that Under Armour has accomplished exactly what it intended to accomplish — to get the media and people talking about the uniforms," said Howe Burch, executive vice president and managing director of Baltimore advertising agency TBC. "While there may be some controversy, it just heightens the awareness of what they're doing in the category."

And that is partly about creating a more eye-popping uniform than the last one while keeping two steps ahead of the competition.

"People used to care about the play on the field, and now they care as much about what the players are wearing," Burch said. Under Armour "has been very successful in getting a lot of attention around uniforms for football programs that are not that high profile. Nike started it with some very provocative uniforms they designed for the University of Oregon for [Nike chairman] Phil Knight's alma mater. Under Armour has taken that model and exploited it."

Bob Leffler, owner and president of Baltimore's Leffler Agency, said he believes it's unlikely Under Armour intentionally designed a veterans' tribute uniform to appear blood splattered. Jerseys feature "courage" and "honor" in place of players' names.

Leffler sees the Northwestern uniform design as the apparel maker's latest charge against its much bigger Oregon-based rival, Nike. There's the need to come up with something new. Plus, he said, something provocative garners attention for a university and can help somewhat in recruiting players.

"They're in a battle with Nike," he said of Under Armour, adding, if "you really want something different, you can't hem the designers in."

And, more and more, "The standard, basic uniform, you just don't see it."

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Under Armour Inc.Northwestern WildcatsPhil KnightKevin Plank
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