Something to Count On: The Importance of Jersey Numbers in Sports

The NFL approved a proposal this past Wednesday to loosen the restrictions on players’ jersey numbers. The approval will give all players the opportunity to wear single-digit numbers, which had previously only been available to quarterbacks, kickers, and punters at the professional level. The change was met with overwhelming support from fans and players alike. While some may see this as a trivial change, the loosening of restrictions gives players the opportunity to express themselves in a unique way.

Numbers often become synonymous with a player’s identity and as a result, many choose to attribute meanings to their numbers. For athletes at all levels, the number you wear is a source of pride and a form of deeper self-expression. 

College third-year and women’s lacrosse player Bette Imhoff wears number 13 to represent her family’s dedication to her throughout her athletic career. 

“Throughout my childhood my dad always wanted me to play lacrosse because he played in college and coached my brother when he was growing up,” Imhoff wrote in an email to the Review. “In lacrosse I wanted to choose number 13 because my dad and brother wore that number when they played lacrosse. I’m really thankful for my dad and all of the time he has dedicated into making me the best player and teammate I can be. Every time I put on my jersey, I want to make my dad proud.”

For many players, numbers can also be a way to pay homage to role models. In addition to lacrosse, Imhoff also played soccer and basketball in high school and wore number 24 in honor of Kobe Bryant.

“When I got to high school I had to play a sport each season, so I chose lacrosse as my spring sport, but in soccer and basketball I always chose number 24 because I admired Kobe and his passion for the game,” Imhoff wrote.

Paying tribute to role models creates a sense of connection to them, not just to how they played on the field or on the court, but to who they are as people. College second-year and baseball player Jackson Schaum had to change his number at Oberlin, but he previously wore number 21 as a tribute to baseball legend Roberto Clemente’s altruistic nature. 

“In high school and summer ball, I always chose number 21 because when I was in fourth grade I did a project on Roberto Clemente being one of the most charitable professional athletes ever,” Schaum said. “Ultimately he [died] in a plane accident trying to deliver goods to an earthquake recovery site. He became my favorite player from then on.”

For many, numbers are rooted in religious meaning as well. Former NBA superstar Dwayne Wade wore number 3 to represent the Holy Trinity, for example. College second-year and baseball player Ben Borzekowski didn’t get to choose his number, but finds comfort in the fact that his number connects to his Jewish heritage. 

“I wear number 40 because it represents the 40 years the Jewish people had to endure in the desert,” Borzekowski said. “Those 40 years were a harsh learning experience for my people, but the lessons learned during that time are eternally valuable. I think that struggle and learning from suffering to create success is an important life lesson I bring with me every time I take the field.”

The religious meaning of numbers is an inspiration for many people’s athletic journeys. However, numbers can make an impact in other aspects as well. They have the power to not just inspire individuals, but to inspire all of us to incite positive change in our society. For example, every year the MLB hosts Jackie Robinson Day, where all players wear number 42 as a gesture of solidarity for the struggles he went through as the first African American to play in the major leagues. On that day, the numbers remind us that the battle against racism is far from over and that we must continue to strive for equality at all levels. 

Whether it’s for family, for role models, for our faith, or the people around us, jersey numbers create a sense of connection. They bring us together in unexpected ways and can be positive platforms for change. So, next time you see a player take the field, think about what their number might mean to them and what it means to you. You may be surprised by what you discover.