By Connor Pignatello
On January 21st, 2001, Allen Iverson was experiencing soreness in his right elbow. He had bursitis, inflammation that would require offseason surgery. So, the 76ers trainer cut out part of a tube bandage and suggested Iverson wear it to ease the swelling. Iverson scored 51 points that night, and by the time the year was over, he had attained his second scoring title and his only NBA Finals appearance.
‘The Answer’ would don his signature accessory, the arm sleeve, for the rest of his distinguished career, while racking up 4 scoring titles, 8 All-NBA selections, and the MVP award in 2001.
It is said arm sleeves can help keep the muscles in the shooter’s arm warm and stop inflammation. However, lots of players wear sleeves just for fashion, and their impact is doubted by many. Also, wearing an arm sleeve on your non-shooting elbow has been found to have zero impact, so players like Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony who wear two arm sleeves are not helping themselves at all.
These sleeves also help players because of the ‘placebo effect’. The player feels as if the sleeve is improving his play and also decreasing his chance of injury. Therefore, he plays with more confidence, even though the accessory that he is wearing has no proven benefits.
Arm sleeves also can help a player become more confident, as Deion Sanders once said, “If you look good you feel good, and if you feel good you play good”. For example, former Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III — who wears one on his non-throwing arm — stated that he feels more confident when he is wearing the stylish arm sleeve.
Another reason that athletes wear arm sleeves is because of superstition. Athletes are notoriously superstitious, so if they try out an arm sleeve and have a great game, they will keep it on as a good luck charm.
Iverson was a cultural icon and many NBA players and fans imitated him. He was a fan favorite because, at just 6’ and 165 pounds, fans could see themselves in his size 11 shoes. Kids grew up idolizing Iverson because they could relate to him, and they could root for the underdog — the skinny kid from the projects who drove fearlessly through the lane against players that might be a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier. Fans could not relate to behemoth centers and athletic freaks like Shaquille O’Neal — the MVP winner in 2000 — because there was no way that they could grow up to be 7’1” and 325 pounds.
Iverson influenced millions of people, and after his jersey retirement ceremony, Lebron James thanked Iverson in an Instagram post, “U (sic.) the reason why I got tattoos, wore a headband and arm sleeve. Thanks for everything!!” When Steph Curry was asked about why he wore an arm sleeve for a portion of Game 1 of the NBA Finals, he replied, “As a little kid I always wanted to be like Allen Iverson and that was the only way I could really come close.” A.I. was so revered by fans that twice in the late stages of his career he made the All-Star team while only playing 3 games.
I estimate that almost half of the players in the NBA now wear an arm sleeve, and this is all attributable to Iverson. Stars like Lebron James, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, and Paul George all wear this fashionable accessory.
Iverson was such an idol in the 2000s that his use of the arm sleeve has spread to baseball, football, and even tennis — Serena Williams wore two arm sleeves during her U.S. Open win in 2016.
Many baseball players wear the accessory on their throwing arm now, to keep their muscles warm. All-Stars like Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, Carlos Correa, Kris Bryant, and Manny Machado all wear compression sleeves.
Arm sleeves are also common in the NFL. Actually, I think they make more sense in football than any other sport, because the sleeves prevent players from getting turf burn. However, I suspect that arm sleeves are more of a fashion statement than a safety feature. Cornerbacks like Richard Sherman and Josh Norman, running backs such as Ezekiel Elliott and Le’Veon Bell, and quarterbacks like Carson Wentz and Robert Griffin III all wear arm sleeves.
Other Sports Fashion
Compression pants, like arm sleeves, have no confirmed benefit, but most basketball players now wear them. Some players have knee pads inside the pants, but many don’t, meaning that they wear compression pants for fashion purposes. Out of the 11 players who received an MVP vote this year, 10 of them wear some type of compression on their legs.
Football players have begun to wear tights as well. Some NFL players are ditching knee-high socks and wearing compression pants underneath their uniform shorts. And many college players are wearing tights to cover up their bare legs.
The arm sleeve is one of the singular accessories in American sports that does not have a proven benefit, but is widespread in its usage. This decoration is still popular years after Iverson retired, and it has been ingrained in sports fashion forever. The era of accessorizing is upon us, and the arm sleeve is here to stay.
Special thanks to Jay Caspian King’s New Yorker article “Object of Interest: The History of the Allen Iverson sleeve”. http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/object-of-interest-the-history-of-the-allen-iverson-sleeve
Special thanks also to iMSportsBlog for teaching me about arm sleeves. http://blog.imsportsteam.com/sports-compression-sleeves-do-they-really-work/
All stats via Basketball Reference