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Is a Jersey Number More Than Just a Number?

Association, respect, and why we define our favorite athletes by digits on polyester and nylon

Jalin Hyatt was drafted by the New York Giants in the third round of this year's NFL Draft. The Giants have high hopes for the product out of Tennessee, who has flashed big play ability this preseason. But Hyatt, who came into the preseason wearing the number 84 on his jersey, has decided to change his jersey number. His preferred number 11 is retired by the Giants (immortalized by the great Phil Simms), so he has decided to take a number of another recognizable Giant: Odell Beckham Jr’s number 13.

Hyatt is not the first Giant player to wear the number since Beckham was traded to the Cleveland Browns in 2019. In fact, wide receiver David Sills IV has worn the number for the last couple of years. But the fact that Beckham has given Hyatt his blessing, indicates that he still feels an association and attachment to the number 13 in blue. The dynamic speaks to the way that we associate numbers with players, long after they have left the playing field. And it begs to ask the question, when is a number more than just a number?

The Power of Association

ESPN personality Mike Greenberg wrote a book recently that was titled “Got Your Number”, which looks at the associations that we have for numbers in sports from 0-100. The premise is not limited to jersey numbers but they are included in the book. As we watch players through the years we tend to develop associations with them. It could be a hair style like Dennis Rodman’s assortment of hair dyed designs while he played in San Antonio and Chicago. It could be an accessory that they wore during games like Allen Iverson’s shooting sleeve or a wide receiver like Calvin Johnson who consistently wore a dark visor on his helmet.

But the number of a player on a team that he plays many years for is often imprinted in our minds. If I was describing a football jersey and said that it was red and the number on it was 15, chances are that you would immediately know that I was talking about the jersey worn by Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. This is because more often than not, when we want to buy apparel for our favorite team we buy our favorite player's jersey. In 2021, the NFL made over $2B in jersey sales revenue. To put it simply, jersey sales are big business for sports leagues.

The fact that with jerseys from the NFL and NBA that we see the number on both sides is further reinforcement of the association that we make with numbers. Even when players are retired we will see them and most likely associate them with the number that they wore. We may watch Peyton Manning on TV all the time breaking down plays with his brother Eli during the NFL season, but when you think about Peyton Manning you think about the number 18 either in Colts blue or Broncos orange depending on your fandom and age. When greatness happens in something that we associate so diligently, a conflict can arise between what is respectful and disrespectful when it comes to wearing a number.

Honor and Respect

Let’s consider two all-time great scorers in the annals of NBA history: Michael Jordan and Carmelo Anthony. Both have worn multiple jerseys in their careers with Jordan having dabbled with 45 in his return in 1995 and Carmelo starting with 15 and flirting with 00 during his time in Portland. But by and large we will always remember Jordan’s number 23 and Carmelo’s number 7. However the way that the following generations have treated using these numbers is vastly different.

There are countless NBA players that have worn the number 23 after Jordan. Many of them have said that they did it because they grew up idolizing and emulating MJ, that wearing his number is an honor to his greatness. The most famous example of this is probably a person that many will also associate with that same number: LeBron James. James has mentioned that wearing 23 was an ode to Jordan, a player that he emulated and glorified as a kid.

The same cannot be said in the case of Carmelo Anthony, particularly when it comes to his former team the New York Knicks. Since Anthony was traded away from New York City no Knick has worn his trademark number 7. In fact, shooting guard Evan Fournier when he signed with the Knicks mentioned wanting to wear number 7 but chose not to because he “didn’t want to take Carmelo’s jersey”.

So what is the difference between Carmelo Anthony and Michael Jordan in terms of end result? Perhaps it is because Carmelo’s exit from New York was not as mythological as Jordan’s from Chicago. Or maybe it is because Carmelo holds weight with the Knicks fan base as the player who was willing to come to the franchise when it was in its darkest era. If nothing else it is a commentary on the varying ways that we as human beings show respect to others, either through direct action or abstinence from an act altogether.

The Ownership of a Number

We have established that certain numbers are associated with certain players. But does this mean that the number should never be used again? Jersey retirement aims to solve this, but because it is at the discretion of the team it is open to interpretation. Using Carmelo Anthony as an example again, many fans have lobbied for his jersey to be retired by the Knicks because he brought the team some success during a dark time. Yet others argue that he did not win a championship as a Knick and that should mean that his jersey should not be retired. Yet, the Oklahoma City Thunder retired the number of long-time reserve big man Nick Collison as he was a core piece of the team from its inception until his retirement in 2018. Jersey retirement is in the eye of the beholder.

Ultimately, there are written rules in sports and then there are unwritten ones. Athletes look at playing for a professional league as a bit of a fraternity, an exclusive club that very few people have the pleasure of joining. As such, there is professional courtesy that comes with the heavy association with a number. Because we as a collective sports watching monolith make associations with players based on their numbers (buying jerseys, calling players by their number, etc.) it becomes a part of that players identity. And when that happens there is a respect factor that comes into play.

In a certain sense, this unwritten code makes a number more than a number. And that’s part of the reason why myself and so many other people fell in love with sports. While those on the outside of the sports fandom bubble will joke that it is just a kids game and not that serious, this is not the case for the athletes that work their whole lives for a chance to compete at the highest level. The respect by a young player to get a veteran’s sign-off on a number shows the brotherhood that many players feel in the NFL and NBA. So yes, a number is more than just a number. And that is just a small slice of why we enjoy these games and love to watch players excel at the highest level.

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