By Emily Van Buskirk / @Emilnem
In a world controlled by rules and regulations — by owners, general managers and governing bodies — athletes have always found a way to make a sport their own.
Some of the greatest competitors throughout history have taken their talent and turned it into a lifestyle — through clothing, physical appearance and even extracurricular activities. Think Tiger Woods, Dennis Rodman or even Andrew Luck.
Whether it’s special clothes, eccentric hair or an unruly beard, athletes’ individual expressions have become lovable nuances for their fans… and subsequently, excellent Twitter fodder for the Interweb.
But what happens when the powers-that-be decide to stifle a small part of that creative process? Several college football players will find out this season, as a seemingly innocuous new rule has caused a few notable names to speak out.
Earlier this year, the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel approved a number of new rules for the 2015 season, including one that states:
Officials will treat illegal equipment issues — such as jerseys tucked under the shoulder pads or exposed back pads — by making the player leave the field for at least one play.
This means that players (and fans) can say goodbye to the crop-top look that was quietly creeping back onto the collegiate gridiron. Ohio State fans specifically can say farewell to the “hero in the half shirt” look worn by Ezekiel Elliott, a standout sophomore running back for the Buckeyes who helped popularize the crop top last season. Elliott is in good company: UCLA linebacker Myles Jack, the talented two-way Bruin, and Cal’s leading rusher, Daniel Lasco, also favor the folded-up jersey.
In a video posted by Bleacher Report’s Ben Axelrod, Elliott explains that he likes to show a little midriff; it’s a style thing.
Jack echoed that sentiment during an interview in the spring with TSFJ and disclosed his crop-top origin story.
It began with a football game. Jack and his mother were watching the Miami vs. Florida game in 2013, during UCLA’s bye week, and she made a comment about No. 7 on the Gators, linebacker Ronald Powell, and his rolled-up jersey.
“My mom said, ‘Uhh, that looks ugly — why is he doing that?’” Jack recalled, laughing at the memory. “She was trying to clown on him, and in my head I looked at her and I thought, ‘I’m going to do that next week.’”
Jack’s reaction to Powell’s crop top was very different from his mother’s.
“She supports it now, but she started off making fun of it. But I was like, ‘I could make that my look; I could pull that off,’” Jack joked.
The versatile linebacker stayed true to his word and debuted the crop top when UCLA traveled to Nebraska the following week.
“The immediate next week, I was like, ‘OK, that’s my look,’” said Jack.
The Bruins defeated the Huskers 41-21, and Jack recorded five tackles, one tackle for a loss and one pass breakup in his second game at left outside linebacker. It was the beginning of Jack-mania — an epidemic that would sweep the Pac-12 and earn the young player both Offensive and Defensive Freshman Player of the Year honors in 2013. Coincidence? Perhaps.
But contrary to popular belief, exposing the midriff is not just a stylistic approach, nor does it only speak to the vanity of a player sporting the look — there is a practicality to it.
Elliott claims it makes him harder to defend, but Jack and Lasco say that the rolled-up jersey provides much-needed ventilation during the game.
“It’s just too hot, especially in Pasadena — it’s like 90 degrees on that field, and it’s dry heat,” said Jack. “So I need something; I need to be able to breathe — playing both ways, playing offense and defense and all that stuff. That’s the only reason I do it — just to get some ventilation going on in my pads because it’s extremely hot.”
Lasco agrees that heat is the mitigating factor.
“That’s the only reason why I do it, because I get hot,” said Lasco. “Especially being in full pads and the California weather — I mean, it’s beautiful weather and all, but when you are out there running 150 plays, you get hot so it’s easy for the wind to cool you off real quick. You can just shake your pads.”
As for the belief that the crop top is just for showing off the results of numerous abdominal workouts, Lasco quickly dispels that theory.
“I mean, I know a lot of big people that do it, and I know they are not doing it for vanity because they have some guts out there,” joked Lasco. “It’s just like a style thing I guess, too, almost. You know, people wear armbands, sleeves, different visors — everybody goes all out with how they dress. A lot of people think that if you feel good out on the practice field or on the game day you play a lot better; it heightens your performance. And if you feel good about the way that you’re dressed, then you feel ready to take on anybody.”
Impassioned Ohio State fans took matters into their own hands, starting an online petition imploring the NCAA to change the rule banning crop tops. Elliott applauds the Buckeye faithful.
“It’s pretty funny to see how much the fans love it, and it really shows how passionate Buckeye Nation is,” Elliott told ESPN. “I think the petition has almost 10,000 signatures on it, and to see the support from the fans is great. Mine is definitely on there.”
When asked if he has seen the petition or any of Elliott’s efforts, Jack responded positively.
“Yes, I’ve seen it. I’m just trying to let him do it because, I mean, he’s a national champion, but I could probably get with him or hit him up or something and we could probably try and work something out,” said Jack. “I’ve definitely seen his position on his Instagram with the link, and I clicked it and I realized, ‘Oh, he’s serious!’
“I was happy for him. I hope he can change it. That would bring a smile to my face.”
Lasco just doesn’t understand the NCAA’s logic for imposing the rule.
“I think it’s unnecessary. I feel like they are just taking rules and kind of running with them,” said Lasco. “I don’t see why it would have anything to do with safety. I’ve never seen anybody get hurt or anything like that. The only thing I can think of is when you are running and your tail pads are swinging and someone could pull you down by it, but I don’t see how that’s dangerous.
“If people want to play with it and it makes them feel better, then I feel like they should be able to do that.”
For now, Elliott, Jack and Lasco, along with their crop-top brethren, will have to find a new look for 2015.
“You know, the NCAA has its rules,” Elliott said. “It’s our job to abide by them.”
According to Elliott, Ohio State’s new uniform tops will have elastic on them to tighten them up, which will combat the running back’s main issue with the loose ends of his jersey. Meanwhile, Jack will have to get a little more creative.
“I don’t know — it’s going to be hard for me. I’m trying to put it up a little bit, get a little air. Maybe I can get a way smaller jersey,” said Jack. “I might try to bend the rules a little bit. I’ll push the rules as far as they will let me.”
In the end, all is fair in football and #FreeingTheBellyButton.
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