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An Ode to the Referees at Foot Locker

Their stores are closing, but their uniforms will live on in legend

Before the mall became terminally empty, mall jobs were sick AF, especially for teens. In particular, they signaled one’s identity beyond school and family and spoke to whatever clique or subculture they were into. Wacky people-pleasers dressed in their clownish Hot-Dog-on-a-Stick uniforms. Nerdy goths got creative with their hair colors and band tees at Hot Topic. Sexy goths sold furry handcuffs at Spencer’s Gifts. And the preppy, beachy crowd found their way within the ultimate California Caucasian hierarchy — figuring out if they were Abercrombie & Fitch hot, Hollister hot or merely American Eagle hot.

But while the smell of Auntie Anne’s buttery pretzels still wafts through the mall’s poorly-lit corridors and pre-teens still treat the space as a safezone for making out and shoplifting, these days it feels like the mall is just somewhere to go rather than the place to be. Needless to say then, the culture of pride that once surrounded having a cool mall job is dead. After all, today’s teens are entrepreneurs with personal brands aspiring to monetize their lifestyle.

Yet before we totally close the book on the mall uniform, we thought it appropriate to salute the most iconic one of all: The referee costume worn by Foot Locker employees. Especially after the recent announcement that 110 Foot Locker stores will close this year. Plus, given Amazon’s new partnership with Nike, the number of Foot Locker employees will probably dwindle even further.

Thus, a brief tribute to the sartorial legacy of the retail referees who sold us all of those back-to-school shoes…

1) To start, Lauryn Hill wore the Foot Locker uniform. She even raps about being fired from Foot Locker on her classic “Superstar”: “I used to work at Foot Locker, they fired me and fronted / Or I quitted, now I spit it however do you want it!

2) Nelly also raps about Foot Locker in his 2002 hit “Air Force Ones,” and a Foot Locker store is featured in the accompanying video, which, per usual, stars a bunch of other celebs from The Lou (in this case, mostly a number of ex-Cardinals and Rams).

3) On The Wire, Poot wants to get a job at Foot Locker, but he’s too young. He later says he’ll use a fake ID to get hired because he just wants to wear the uniform.

4) My friend Terrell did get a job at Foot Locker. Here’s what he had to say: “I worked at Foot Locker in Chicago at a mall called Evergreen Plaza when I was 18 years old for about a year. I was well aware of the uniform before working there. I thought they were the coolest uniforms in the mall until I found myself in one of them. I still don’t think any other uniforms stand out as much. They were ridiculously noticeable when walking around the mall.”

5) On eBay, you can buy one of the ref jerseys for around 20 bucks.

6) Vintage versions on Etsy, however, are sold out.

7) The Etsy seller promises that they make “a really easy Halloween costume,” but they’re an endless fount of Youtuber-style comedy material, too.

8) Per court documents, the official name of the jersey is the Foot Locker Striper. To get all legal about it: “Foot Locker Retail owns an incontestable federal service mark registration for the Foot Locker Striper design, U.S. Registration №1,591,435. Foot Locker Retail also owns an incontestable federal service mark registration for the stylized design of the Foot Locker wordmark, U.S. Registration №1,032,592. These marks are collectively referred to as the Foot Locker Marks.”

9) Since Foot Locker began in Southern California in the late 1970s, Nike has driven a majority of the brand’s sales. Today, Nike products comprise almost 70 percent of the merchandise sold there. As such, I ask my Uncle Kevin, a noted Nike freak, about the symbiotic relationship between the brands. “My first memory of Foot Locker was at the Panorama Mall in 1985,” he says. “I know that because that’s when I got my first pair of Air Jordan 1s. My sister drove me to that same Foot Locker every year thereafter to get the new Jordan release. Back then, Foot Locker was my happy place. I remember all the employees wearing those damn ref shirts, but I also remember them always trying to get you to buy shoe cleaner or fucking socks — much more than any other place!”

“Now, however, we’re in a new era of shoe culture. Before, you could actually go to Foot Locker and get great shoes. Now, everything has to be a limited-release so that assholes can go resell the shit for ridiculous amounts of money. I miss those much simpler Foot Locker times.”

10) This unofficial blog post explores the utility of the uniforms in greater detail: “Why the ref get-ups? Lacking a clear explanation from anyone at Foot Locker corporate, one can only assume the company’s employee uniforms are designed to impart an air of authority; a customer can hardly help thinking they could get called for any number of possible violations caught by the flinty-eyed salespeople/referees.

“Touch a window display and accidentally knock over a mannequin? There goes the whistle — illegal use of hands! Mistakenly enter a stockroom not meant for the public? Out of bounds! At the checkout counter for too long while you fumble through your wallet for your credit card? Delay of game!”

11) Or:

12) I ask a friend of mine — a guy in his 20s who does creative work for a prominent sportswear company — about Foot Locker’s uniforms, but he says, “I don’t think much about Foot Locker uniforms, aside from the fact that all the waitresses at Dames and Games [a strip club in Downtown L.A.] wear sexy versions of them.”

13) That’s most likely a violation of U.S. Registration №1,591,435.

14) Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, however, evoking the Striper after a devastating playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017 is a perfect example of why that trademark is so valuable and why those zebra stripes will live on long after Foot Locker itself has gone the way of Blockbuster. “Momentum was getting on our side, and then just get our jugulars ripped out because a ref felt bad for [Steelers linebacker] James Harrison falling on the ground,” Kelce said. “It’s ignorance. Ref number 51 shouldn’t even be able to wear a zebra jersey ever again. He shouldn’t even be able to wear it at fucking Foot Locker.”