After more than a century of girding the loins of American male athletes--and giving its name to those who wear it--the jock is slipping.
Although the jock alone may be an endangered species, it's still issued by many college and pro teams. And protective cups, both hard and soft--with cup supporters that, with any luck, keep them in position--have never gone out of style in contact sports.
But novel fabrics and designs have helped to create a new generation of athletic underwear. Undoubtedly the fastest growing jock alternative is compression shorts--those skin-tight Spandex shorts made famous by college and pro basketball players. (Some athletes do wear jocks under their compression shorts.) Also edging out the traditional strap are light, brief-type supporters that feel and look like the underwear that athletes are used to.
Nike offers a cotton/Lycra Spandex short in assorted colors with an elastic waist and inside draw cord ($32). Men used it for running, aerobics, cycling, weightlifting, tennis and basketball.
"Many of our customers wear it as a short, and others wear it as a first layer. It is very supportive and comfortable, and it breathes well," says Maxine Haris, apparel manager at Nike Town in Costa Mesa.
"Most of all, it's the advent of new materials," says Bob Beeton, manager of the clinical services program in sports medicine at the U.S. Olympic Committee training center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Beeton says jockstraps are increasingly rare among would-be Olympians.
"It's a lot more comfortable getting your support from something that is kind of a full-sleeve support rather than something with straps and bands around it and (that) never seems to stay where it's supposed to," says Beeton.
The jock is not simply another piece of clothing.
Those in middle age and older can remember when getting the first jock--sometimes required for junior high or high school physical education classes or youth sports--was an awkward rite of passage. It has been a rich source of rib-tickling locker-room humor: The old Ben Gay-in-the-jock rarely failed to get a laugh, and seniors often tried to convince unwary freshmen that the strange, new appliance was really a noseguard.
Who can dispute its many contributions to the colorful language of sport? Will it be possible to fake someone out of his compression shorts?
One would think that the demise of the jock would be met with anguish at the jock capitol of the world: the Knoxville, Tenn., headquarters of Bike Athletic Co., the company that developed and sold the first jockstrap in 1874 in Boston to protect the privates of bicycle jockeys (thus the name) who were bouncing over Beantown cobblestones. Bike sold its 300 millionth jock two years ago.
"There are a lot of different products out there cannibalizing the jock business," says Beth Hamilton, marketing manager for the elastics division, which includes jockstraps. The jock "is on the way out, but I can't tell you that it's gone. There are still people who prefer the traditional supporter."
Actually, Bike invented compression shorts, so it is happily competing with itself. The shorts were originally designed from surgical hose 15 years ago to reduce hamstring injuries and groin pulls among football players.
And Bike is further diversifying: Besides brief-type jocks and special lightweight numbers for runners and swimmers, Bike this summer will add a line of men's underwear briefs "with a mild degree of support," according to Hamilton.
Bob Gfeller, senior marketing manager of Champion Underwear of Winston, N.C., another jock maker, calls the traditional strap "a low-end loss-leader for our line." It's an entry-level item, he says, but it accounts for only 5% of Champion's underwear business, while its Cool Jock--one of the new wave of lightweight jocks, has 8%. Compression shorts are 65% of Champion's business.
"You're seeing a move out of jocks and into compression pants," he says.
The need for support is reiterated constantly by sports-medicine experts. John Fulkerson, head of sports medicine at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, echoes this advice: "If athletes don't have some form of protection and support, they are at additional risk of injury."
(Protection and support, technically, are two different things, according to Bike's Hamilton. A cup supporter is designed only to hold a cup in place, not to support the genitals. For both protection and support, she says, you need to wear both a cup and a supportive garment. Compression pants, by the way, make everything feel tight, but they don't provide quite the same support as jocks. Claims that they help prevent groin and hamstring injuries have not been clinically evaluated.)
Kennon Miller, an assistant professor of urology at the State University of New York, Buffalo, says traditional jocks can chafe some men more than alternatives (compression shorts are particularly chafe-proof).
Josh Lippman, an 18-year-old high school junior, says there is an anti-jock movement among teen-agers. "A lot of kids are wearing boxers now, even for sports," he reports. "They think you've got to hang loose."