Ellen Freeman Roth                      

June 5, 2008

Sometimes making a fashion statement is a team effort

Twenty-five Speedo-clad Weston High School boys gather, pour bleach into each other's hair, and emerge from the natatorium neon blond in preparation for a championship swim meet. The Winchester girls' swim team wears ballet tutus and Swedish dresses to school for race day. For the Haverhill hockey team, it's Mohawks down the line.

Practice is still the surest way to the finish line, but some teams use fashion for extra kick.

These are not simply variations on standard uniforms, like the New York Giants' occasionally-worn fiery-red jerseys or the French rugby team Stade Franšais's we're-so-macho-we-can-wear-pink-floral uniforms. It's about leveraging the power of style on the field and off, whereby high school and college teams - not to mention the pros - use hair shears or creative outfits to gain a competitive edge. It can be as simple as wearing goofy socks, as the Haverhill High School volleyball team does. Or shaving their heads, as members of the Boston Celtics did in Rome last fall as a bonding experience.

So, why do they do it, and what do they hope to accomplish? Team fashion statements are all about mutual accountability, according to David Yukelson, director of sports psychology services at Penn State University. Teammates are demonstrating that they have a commitment and responsibility to each other.

It's "you're growing a goatee so I'm growing a goatee," he explained. The goatee itself doesn't improve how well players work together on a court or field, but the ritual promotes bonding, a sense of being there for each other, and team identity. "Those things are important to what goes into making a team."

While athletes seem to embrace such rituals, school administrators tend to be more cautious.

"Under no circumstances does the school approve of it as a motivational tool," said Brian McDonough, Norwood High School athletic director. "If the kids do it on their own and there's no form of coercion or pressure to do it, that's [a different] thing."

"When I was a freshman, I loved it," raved Chris Rossborough, senior and outgoing tri-captain of Weston High School's varsity boys' swim team. The boys bleach their hair before first-round championships; for the next round, each senior shaves a funky pattern into a freshman teammate's hair, which the freshman wears until shaving down for maximum efficiency in the water in the final meet.

"It unified us, made us one, and that was pretty cool - even though we weren't the most attractive guys," added Rossborough.

Weston swim coach Claude Valle described it as a rite of passage. "From the outside it might sound like hazing or some weird hierarchical thing, but it's not. It's a really connected thing, a real honor."

Winchester's varsity girls' swim team has game day "psychs," a "crazy mix of tradition and pre-game adrenaline pumping," said team captain Susan Colt. There's Twin Day (when two or even four swimmers coordinate outfits like ballet tutus and authentic Swedish dresses), Dress for Success psychs with formal wear, and Clash Day featuring dizzying polka dots, plaids, and mismatched socks.

"In a sport like swimming, races go by quickly and the difference between first and second place is often a mere arm's length," Colt said. "Anything extra such as these 'psychs' that will get your blood pumping for those few minutes in the water can be the difference between winning and losing a meet."

For the pros, team fashion builds unity but, on occasion, also builds excitement among fans. The 1972 Oakland Athletics baseball team owner Charlie Finley paid each of his players $300 to grow a mustache for the fan promotion Mustache Day, recalled A's equipment manager Steve Vucinich, who's been with the team since 1968.

"We were kind of a trendsetter with hair," he said, noting that at the time many ball clubs had rules against facial hair. "We played in the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds, and because they were so clean cut, [it was] the Hairs versus The Squares."

The A's won, but not because of their facial hair, Vucinich joked. Nor did bald pates rescue the 2003 Red Sox during the American League Division series.

But style may lighten things up. "There's got to be a certain looseness that helps you play with the right amount of intensity in pressure situations," Yukelson suggests.

California State University Long Beach junior and men's volleyball player Dustin Watten  said that his team's "Fear the Stache" campaign "loosened us up a lot and we were able to compete better."

"Fear the Stache" took root after a friend suggested the phrase for T-shirts. After the team lost in the semifinals, most players shaved. But not Watten, who competed in a national tournament that ended last week.

"The older guys on that team want me to keep it for a while because it's so ridiculous," he said before the tourney. "I want a mustache tan before I shave it off." Now what does he think about his pale upper lip? "It's still pretty fun."