Thursday, October 30, 2014

Here Comes the "Sun"

By Erin Figley

Bright yellow floods the streets of the city and proud chants fill the air as bodies adorned in blue and gold garments move toward the southwest end of town. This image can only mean one thing: it is game day in Ann Arbor. Most Ann Arbor dwellers, academics, and students can recognize what maize represents to this community—it signifies high academic standards, cherished athletics (perhaps not recently, but historically speaking), and, most importantly, tradition. But few understand the more complicated story of maize, and how this beloved hue and symbol of Wolverine pride has transformed in recent years. 
In the past decade, there has been a surge in the popularity of university athletic teams to license logos to apparel corporations. In 2008, the University of Michigan entered a contract with Adidas, terminating previous agreements with Nike, which retaliated by copyrighting the color maize. Consequently, the law forced the university and its new partner Adidas to create an entirely new color—“Sun”—that now represents Michigan. “Sun” has morphed how students and sports fanatics perform their social identity as Michigan fans. This case exemplifies how color is an essential element of the “uniform” that we employ to participate in a group identity and how administrative decisions can influence social identity symbols.  
The colors maize and blue are fundamental symbols in the performance of one’s self-concept as a Michigan fan. Thus, the shift in the shade of yellow did not merely change the color of the Michigan football team’s uniform; it altered the informal uniform that makes the University of Michigan fan in-group distinct. Categorizing oneself with a certain social identity is to behave as the other individuals in the group behave (Stets and Burke 2000: 226). The yellow student section during home football games expresses the symbolic and practical significance of the color maize. Both social identity theory and identity theory explain that “the self is reflexive in that it can take itself as an object and can categorize, classify, or name itself in particular ways in relation to other social categories or classifications” (Stets and Burke 2000: 224). Wearing maize is part of the process of self-categorization in the football fan realm.

To the dismay of many fans, “sports teams and universities eventually gained a monopoly in the fan apparel context after licensing became increasingly commonplace” (Franklin 2011: 995). This recent phenomenon has created a new sector of copyright law, whereby “unlicensed apparel providers face trademark infringement liability” (Franklin 2011: 988). In the case of the University of Michigan and the color maize, Nike’s copyright legally requires the university teams to use a different color for athletic clothing. However, in exchange for the apparel company’s license for the logo, the apparel providers pay an annual premium to the team (Franklin 2011). For this reason, the University of Michigan agreed to an eight-year partnership with Adidas in the fall of 2008—valued at $7.5 million annually (Madej 2007). As a result, team logos, and even colors, became a commodity of the athletic team and its apparel partner, rather than solely a symbol of in-group identity.

According to the University of Michigan Official Athletic Site, “Maize and Blue are some of the most recognizable icons in college history… Michigan athletic teams have been wearing Maize and Blue for more than 100 years” (Maize and Blue 2014). The athletic department describes the long-term history of the colors, but it fails to note how the most recent change to the maize hue came about and its ensuing implications. As identity theorist Jerome Bruner articulates, “In our social world, the more fixed one’s self-concept, the more difficult it is to manage change” (Bruner 1980:165).  Accordingly, tampering with the embedded legacy of tradition that the University of Michigan promotes and casts in maize and blue lighting has instilled a discontented response. 
This change in a century-old symbol of University of Michigan culture has not been adopted without contestation. Even the athletes themselves have qualms about the adoption of “Sun” yellow. The Michigan Daily published an article titled “Hurrah to the sun and blue?” in 2010,  that explains how the transition from Nike to Adidas sponsorship has come with “growing pains.” Contributors Lexi Zimmerman and Courtney Fletcher, who are former University of Michigan volleyball players, mention how the volleyball team chastised the new color: “Adidas actually had to make a new version of our school color, now known as ‘Sun’ (which the volleyball team has affectionately dubbed the ‘highlighter’ jerseys).” The athletes emphasized that augmenting school colors modifies the customs of an athlete’s life: “Tradition. It’s one of the main reasons we chose to come to the University of Michigan. But ever since we arrived, major aspects of that tradition have changed, especially in the athletic department… they have a huge impact on an athlete’s everyday life” (Zimmerman and Fletcher 2010).

With the advent of the blogosphere, Michigan sports fans discovered an outlet to display their civil unrest about the color change and subsequent group identity transformation.  In 2012, Brian of mgoblog defiantly stated, “Anyone who's surveyed a student section and been able to pick out the 10% who still wear shirts that would not blind a donkey knows how alarming the color drift has become in recent years” (Brian 2012). Several University of Michigan fans believe that the bright “alarming” color is not characteristic of their identity as a Michigan Wolverine. Backlash about “Sun” may eventually materialize into the potential for institutional change at the athletic department’s level, as one blogger underscores: “There is an effort within the athletic department to slowly get away from using the bright neon-yellow that has become synonymous with Michigan sports teams. A point to which I can only add a slow clap.” (Brad 2012). 
When Adidas and the university administration invoked the color change, students and fans experienced an identity crisis. Because the norms of wearing the true golden deep yellow maize color were changed in favor of the “highlighter” color, students and fans felt a disconnect from one of the most central components of the Michigan fan informal uniform. The passionate color-related contention indicates the importance of color as a cultural symbol and an element of performing the University of Michigan fan identity. 

Works Cited 
Brad. 2012. Bringing Back Maize. Maize and Blue Nation. Retrieved from

Brian. 2012. Rumorizing: ND at Night, Maize That’s Actually Maize. MGoBlog. Retrieved from

Bruner, Jerome.1996. A narrative model of self construction. Psyke & Logos. 17: 154-170. 

Franklin, David. 2011. League Parity: Bringing Back Unlicensed Competition in the Sports Fan Apparel Market. Chicago-Kent Law Review. 86(2):987-1017. 

Madej, Bruce. 2007. Addidas New Athletic Supplier. The University Record Online.

Maize and Blue. 2014. MGoBlue: Athletics News. Retrieved from

Stes, Jan E., Peter J. Burke. 2000. Identity Theory and Social Identity Theory. Social Psychology Quarterly, 6(3):224-237.

Zimmerman and Courtney Fletcher. 2010. Hurrah to the sun and blue? The Michigan Daily. 


  1. This is a very good application of the social identity theory. Rumor has it that we might be entering into a contract with Nike pretty soon. I wonder if we will change back to maize. It would also be interesting to apply the theory to greek life shirts during game day- both the greek life wide shirt and the individual sorority/fraternity pre game partner shirts.

    1. Your argument about the color change and its implications for social identity is very compelling. It demonstrates the significance of symbols in establishing identity. I think it is interesting to see how this change has affected not only the athletes but also for others associated with the University. I am curious to see whether this does lead to institutional change or if there will be a return to the original colors.

    2. Lauren and Taylor,
      Thank you both for your feedback. Lauren, I cannot say I know anything about the Greek life shirts; though I urge you to test the theory and let me know! Taylor, I hope that a Nike agreement and a new (better?) AD who caters a bit more to students are in the works. The timeliness of this piece was at least somewhat incidental—I did not know about Brandon's resignation or the potential upcoming deal with Nike upon writing it. But what I could not ignore earlier this fall was the perpetual commodification of "tradition" at this university. Earlier this semester, we discussed in class about how organizations can have fractured or divided organizational identities, which I think is an underlying concept of this argument. I believe that the customs at the university and the way that students practice rituals, show school pride, and by other means perform their social identity as UM students should be decided by the students, and the students only. To the school as an institution, "traditon" and "maize and blue" are only as valuable as the outcomes of the brochures that they're plastered on and the marketing that brings more generations to the U. The commercialization of athletics—embodied in "Sun," the changing student football ticket seating policy, and the handling of Morris's concussion—is an excellent example of this trend. As a friend articulated, "It's all about the dollars and no one cares about the tradition anymore."

  2. You indicate that as a result of the color change students had an identity crisis. This follows the idea that changing a symbol associated with a social group leads to a sense of distrust between the members and the institution. Does distrusting the institution because of a symbol change place this member in the out group (i.e. not a true fan or supporter)? Following the social identity theory, the normal reaction to change is to feel confused, but not all individuals react this way. Does changing the identity of a group cause division between the individuals in the group?

  3. Your articulation of how a simple color change has lasting effects and impacts one's sense of identity is quite compelling. Here I wonder how the discussion could more broadly relate to a conversation about in groups and out groups. Specifically, who are the decision makers and why? Since students/athletes are the ones most directly impacted by such change, do they have a say in such decisions? How does power interact with notion of social identity - who are the creators of social identities?

  4. Despite our change to "sun" and blue, the University of Michigan still touts the "maize" and blue, and uses this to maintain a connection to the past identity of a winning football tradition. Students, myself included, have noticed this change, however.

    Unfortunately, Michigan students are not the only to have noticed this change. I have many friends at Michigan State, mostly old friends from high school, who take every opportunity they can to mock this change. Not only do they make fun of the fact we changed to Adidas, a seemingly inferior football brand when compared to Nike, but they endlessly harp on our obnoxious colors. When they hear "the maize and blue" they remind me that it is a neon yellowish color, which hurts their eyes. This change in identity has not only affected our internal identity, as you have pointed out; it has affected rivals perceptions of our school, no longer looking at us as formidable, but as sell-out, who cannot hold on to tradition. Our identity as viewed from the outside has been hurt just as much as our identity from within.

  5. I love this article! I do however, want to ask you a question about the reasons why these past few years have been ones that lacked a stronger group identity. Do you think that the disassociation between students and the athletic department has led to more backlash and identity crisis over the past 6 years (rich rod and hoke tenures) or the switch from nike to adidas and the resulting loss of identity from the traditional Maize and Blue. Personally, I think that they all come together to lead to the students and alums to distrust the system and therefore losing the relationship between being a Michigan supporter and a michigan alum

  6. This piece does a great job evaluating how the legal proceedings of a licensing agreement and subsequent Nike copyright affected the group identities and self-perceptions. By detailing how a mere shift in the color pallet elicited such outrage, you conveyed how important notions of tradition are to the Michigan fan base.

    One thing that might be worth looking into, however, is how different subgroups within this large in-group of Michigan fans might view the change. It's possible that in-state or other students who grew up as Michigan fans might be more critical of the "sun" color than those students who only became fans when they arrived on campus as a freshman. You also lump Michigan student-athletes and regular students into one in-group; there might be differences between how athletes--whose enrollment in the school was much more dependent on the Michigan athletic tradition than a normal student--perceive the changes in color. Given these discrepancies within the in-group of students, it would be interesting to investigate as time goes on and more incoming students have less of a connection with the real maize color, whether the outrage will dissipate and color has less of an impact on this in-group identity.

  7. I think that this is a great argument that articulates how a simple color change has caused an identity crisis. The jersey change to “sun” and blue is something that both students and non-students notice. I catch so much flack when our basketball team plays other schools for our “highlighter” jerseys. As you mention at the end of the article, I hope that our athletic department continues with the effort to move away from the bright neon yellow jerseys. However, there is no doubt that this change has left lasting effects. Has the sway from tradition in the athletic department left the student body/fans (the in group) divided? How do the athletes feel about the contract with Adidas? I really don’t know, but I hope that we sign back with Nike soon. In the sports world that is considered the superior brand…

  8. It is very interesting to read the article and the comments and I totally agree with Erin that a simple change of color could tigger an identity crisis. But I would also like to offer another perspective and claim that the change from Nike to Adidas, and by this from "Maize" to "Sun", is much more likely to cause an identity crisis in people that identified with Nike and "Maize" than in people that had not identified with that color. For example, freshmen, international, or transfer students that are new to the University of Michigan might be as well attending sport events and proud supporters of the Wolverines but do not experience an identity crisis when they see the colors "Sun and Blue" because they were not exposed to the original "Maize and Blue". Therefore, these students are likely to form another in-group within the in-group (Wolverine fans) or out-group (Nike versus Adidas) of U of M students at sport events. This does mean, however, that another color change, e.g. from Adidas back to Nike, could also cause an identity crisis in people that identified with "Sun and Blue". In short, no matter what decision someone makes, especially when it involves a huge sports team fan base, there will always be someone who dislikes the change or finds his identity disturbed. And by the way, although I have only experienced "Sun and Blue" I would prefer a change to Nike, but that is just because I like their design better, and no matter what shade of yellow is chosen for the jersey, I will definitely always identify with the traditional block M on it.

  9. As much as it embarrasses me to admit this, I was actually unaware of the color change that occurred with Michigan Athletics in recent years. I was someone who was not an avid Wolverine fan until I started attending school here, but obviously now bleed Maize and Blue like everyone else on this campus. However, it seems that this legend of Maize and Blue that I was told of, has been a cheap rip-off version over my past 3 years here. As soon as people step foot in Ann Arbor, they are reminded of the importance of "Maize" and Blue, not "Sun" and Blue. The idea of Maize has both historical and cultural significance that is very important to this school, or so I thought. With this new information, I almost feel as if I had been rooting for a fake Michigan team since my time here (maybe that's also why they've been so bad). I feel as though there was a Michigan identity I was unaware of until now. I think your article does an excellent job of presenting these facts and bringing this issue to the attention of some potentially uninformed students such as myself. The idea of Maize is obviously very important to the University of Michigan community and identity and is stronger than any changes Adidas or Nike wants to make.

  10. This is a great piece! I never knew about the color change, but have found Sun to be a bit annoying. The in-group and out-group dynamics that you examine are interesting and would be aided by the piece we read concerning the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra. In this scenario, the business and artistic sides of an organization offer competing rhetoric about what they value and what signifies tradition. Similarly, the Athletic Department and the students can sometimes be at odds over issues concerning what signifies tradition. Although the Athletic Department could license Maize, they choose not to as a business decision. According to students, Maize might be an invaluable part of the University experience and that you can't place a price tag on tradition. In fact, the decision to go with Adidas over Nike in the first place was a business decision. Students may disagree but, at the end of the day, we (sometimes) get the Athletic Department that we pay for.

  11. I love this piece and I think the topic is especially timely given all that has happened with our athletic department. One important contrast that I thought you also could have discussed deals with the difference in the color "maize" between the University and the athletic department. The University recently underwent a major rebranding, unifying the colors and logos of all campus units, as well as creating their own font, "Victors." I love that you explored this topic, however. As University's profiles expand, brand becomes more and more important, and it's great to see Michigan on the cutting edge of this trend.

  12. I really enjoyed this article and the relevancy of the material which it addressed. Growing up as a Michigan fan and now obviously attending here I was well aware of the switch from Nike to Adidas, but I actually didn't know that the official color had to be rebranded from maize to sun. The connotations that you mentioned as well with the athletic department in general are very interesting, as they have often been criticized for their movement away from classic Michigan traditions. The recent lackluster performances of our main athletic teams also has been contributing to this criticism, and one has to wonder if this jersey/color issue is simply a reflection of where our athletic department is headed as a whole.

  13. This was an interesting way to examine the idea of identity. This course has taught me a lot about what identity really is and what it truly means, and its something that I anticipate will linger in my mind for quite some time. The uniform color change from “maize” to “sun” was a clever way to examine this topic. I wasn’t even aware of this, so the material was offered a fresh explanation for my mind to mull over.

    I loved the quote that Erin found about what social identity theory and identity theory explain— that “the self is reflexive in that it can take itself as an object and can categorize, classify, or name itself in particular ways in relation to other social categories or ‘classifications.’” This is the perfect thesis sentence for the identity essay that’s crammed in my mind. It was complimented perfectly by the Brunner quote she used later on, stating that, “In our social world, the more fixed one’s self-concept, the more difficult it is to manage change.”

    There are so many aspects and variables involved in identity, and this example is perfect for examining and understanding all of them— Although many of them are intangible, overlapping, and constantly fluctuating. Michigan is part of our identities because we chose this University, and as a result, we adopted everything Michigan. This includes everything from academics, to athletics, and even a monumental shift in shade from “Maize” to “Sun” as the color representing us. It’s interesting that something so seemingly harmless as this can still threaten our very identities.