From the Magazine: The Letterman Sweater

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Illustration by Eduardo Santana

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Chalk it up to convenience, comfort, or pride— whatever the reason, athletes at Columbia seem to spend an inordinate amount of time padding around campus in logo-tagged sweats. But when homecoming weekend rolls around, footballers and field hockey players alike can trade in their standard issue sweats for more typical Ivy League garb: the letterman sweater.

The Columbia letterman sweater is the paradigm of classic collegiate apparel—white wool knit crew necks emblazoned with a big Lion’s-blue “C” across the chest. It’s just the sort of thing thing a Columbia man of the 1920s might have worn, before squash and backgammon were replaced by protesting as default campus activities.

Though this preppy staple would be a surefire hit with current Columbia students—natty and historically-minded dressers, all—the letterman sweater is conspicuously absent from the Columbia bookstore. That’s because it’s a privilege reserved only for varsity athletes—and only for some athletes, at that!

Initially, the sweaters were given as an award for letter winners, with criteria varying from sport to sport. In the everyone-gets-a- trophy 1990s, the Athletic Department began awarding varsity letters (actual chenille Cs) to student athletes who had participated in 25 percent of a given sport’s varsity contests, sweaters to all those who had played a sport for at least three years, and lion-engraved watches to four-year varsity athletes. The sweaters, though, were a long-standing tradition: “I have spoken to alumni from the ’40s and ’50s who still have their letterman sweaters,” Jackie Blackett, the Department’s Senior Associate Athletics Director, said in an e-mail.

The sweaters are largely funded by the NCAA, Blackett added, which allocates funds to schools across the country for what she called “student-athlete well being issues”—insert your John Jay dining hall joke here—and teams distribute them at their respective end-of-season gatherings.

Though Natalia Christenson, CC ’11 and captain of the tennis team, has yet to wear her sweater, she said athletes are proud of what they signify, and even wear them beyond homecoming: “My best friend and teammate wears hers on a regular basis,” she said, “but it’s usually to her job in Dodge.” These beauties sit locked up, lonely until the end of the year.

While this correspondent overheard a few jealous homecoming attendees plotting to liberate a few sweaters, such action might not be necessary. Having endured enough pestering, Blackett is looking into designing a different version to be made available to the student body. The Blue & White knows what it wants for Christmas 2011—do you?

Sam Schube

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  1. Anon  

    I don't play a sport at Columbia and never will (I'm really truly awful at every sport) but I feel like I'd be a little irritated if something that's been reserved for athletes who have worked hard for it for years and years was suddenly made available to the general population.

  2. ...  

    don't do it, jackie! don't give in!

  3. Anonymous  

    My question is: how did the letterman sweater ever become restricted to athletes? I'd be a little irritated if something open to the student body suddenly became restricted to a single group of students.

  4. Anonymous  

    There are all of four preppies on campus. Everyone else seems to be of the dreadlocks-and-sandals or graphic-tee-and-blue-jeans variety. Except the women-folk who continue to outdress Columbia men 7 days a week

  5. Athletics Alumnus

    Feels niiiiice and warm.

  6. Thanks  

    for that info Dwight Schrute

  7. Respect  

    Selling letterman sweaters in the bookstore would completely devalue the special gift that Columbia athletes receive after devoting three years of hard work and devotion to their respective programs. The sweaters should remain a symbol of accomplishment and respect for student-athletes.

  8. Do want

    This is relevant to my interests.

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