The United States Team uniforms for the opening ceremony is rather hideous, and illegal, and a bit anachronistic

By the time you read this, the opening ceremony for a large sporting event organized by a lawsuit-happy organization may already have taken place. As part of the ceremony, the team representing the United States entered wearing ugly uniforms. They're so ugly that even the hideous Christmas sweater in your closet, the one with the reindeer and wreaths and candy canes, actually steps out, points, and laughs, saying "Ha ha, what an ugly sweater!"

If you study the picture carefully, you will observe a number of things.

First of all, the incorporation of the flag into the sweater pattern (and once in the pants) violates Title 4, Section 8, paragraphs(d) and (j) of the United States Code.¹

(d) The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery. …

(j) No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. However, a flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations. …

Of course, this section of the United States Code is violated constantly because it specifies no penalty for violation. Therefore, you can break this law all you want; even if caught, there is no punishment. (Exception: Penalties are specified for violations within the District of Columbia. So the Olympic Team had better not wear those sweaters when they meet with the President. Actually, that's probably good advice anyway from a fashion standpoint, completely ignoring the legal angle.)

But more interesting is that if you look closely at the picture, you might notice that the giant flag in the background has 48 stars on it, which means that this photo was taken some time between 1912 and 1959. I guess they've been working on this uniform for a long time. Either that, or they decided to kick Alaska and Hawaii off the team.

(Actually, if you're kicking states off the flag for not being part of the team, then the flag should have only 39 stars because there is nobody from Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, or West Virginia.)

¹ There is disagreement over whether a flag pattern counts as a flag. Since there is no enforcement, it doesn't really matter, so work with me here. I'm going somewhere with this.

Comments (26)
  1. I suspect the "apparel" portion of this section is nullified by the "free speech" clause of the First Amendment.

  2. BC says:

    It looks very much like they went to Etsy and searched for "flag sweater".  Uhg.

    And where did they even get a 48-state flag???

  3. Rick C says:

    In Internet RFCs, "should" and "must" mean different things.  Since the USC says "should not" instead of "must not" it might not actually be illegal.

    @BC: Presumably they had one made.  It wouldn't be any more difficult than the uniforms themselves.  The bigger question, of course, is _why_.

  4. Matt says:

    By my count, there are 42 stars (6 rows of 7) on the flag.

    [The eighth column is hidden by the mast, or at least that's how my brain filled it in. -Raymond]
  5. Mark says:

    If it's illegal to use "any part" of the flag, does that mean any clothes with red and white stripes are illegal? Or for any real pedants, any clothes any part of which is red, white or blue?

  6. Jorgie says:

    I personally have no problem with recognizable parts of the flag being used on clothing. I don't like complete renditions of the flag being used with disrespect, but has others have said, expressing opinions both for and against the US is really protected speech.

    I would not want to wear one, but I did not think they were that ugly.

  7. JamesNT says:

    And here I was wondering if anyone else noticed the same things I noticed.  Specifically, the star count and the violation of the US Code.

    Raymond, you complete me.


  8. Martijn says:

    According to Wikipedia [1],

    "One of the most commonly ignored and misunderstood aspects of the Flag Code is section 8. "The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery." Section 3 of the Flag Code[25] defines a flag for the purposes of the code. Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. Flag Code does permit the use of flag design in fashion et cetera, provided that such a design was not formed using the actual design of the flag. The wearing of any article of clothing representing the flag is allowed; however, wearing the flag itself is not."

    I.e. you're allowed to star-and-stripe your clothing, but you're not allowed to make clothing 'with real flag parts'. Basically, the flag becomes 'holy' when it's finished as flag.


    [I wrote that footnote specifically for you. I guess you didn't read it. -Raymond]
  9. Nick says:

    One could make the argument that the US Olympic Team comprises a patriotic organization and that this is their uniform.

  10. Anon says:


    The First Amendment nullifies the entire thing. The flag can be used in any way, shape, or form, whether for display or kindling.

    It only remains in the USC because there's no penalty and, as such, the SCOTUS will never accept that anyone can possibly have standing to challenge it.

    [Nevertheless, it still holds value as a standard for respectful behavior. -Raymond]
  11. bzakharin says:


    I don't see that from the code itself:

    The words “flag, standard, colors, or ensign”, as used herein, shall include any flag, standard, colors, ensign, or any picture or representation of either, or of any part or parts of either, made of any substance or represented on any substance, of any size evidently purporting to be either of said flag, standard, colors, or ensign of the United States of America or a picture or a representation of either, upon which shall be shown the colors, the stars and the stripes, in any number of either thereof, or of any part or parts of either, by which the average person seeing the same without deliberation may believe the same to represent the flag, colors, standard, or ensign of the United States of America.

    Seems a pretty broad prohibition to me.

  12. Ken in NH says:

    I guess they had to put the 2014 into the design so that nobody would think this was the uniform in 1976. At least it looks like it could have come from 1976 to me.

  13. DM says:


    > "The First Amendment nullifies the entire thing."

    It's not that simple. First, it is at least arguable that the U.S. Olympic Committee, given its status as a federally chartered corporation under 36 U.S.C. § 220502, and its exclusive privileges under that chapter, is an instrumentality of the United States Government. In such case, it has no free speech rights against its creator – just as the President can't claim freedom of speech as a basis for, say, displaying a different flag design at U.S. naval vessels.

    Second, the First Amendment only says that Congress shall make no law restricting freedom of speech. Absent a sanction (civil, criminal, or otherwise), there is no restriction – just an expression of what Congress considers, as Raymond termed it, "a standard for respectful behavior." Congress is certainly free to enact such a standard, even if it can't punish its violations. And an organization representing the United States – at the Congress's pleasure – should be expected to respect it.

    [There may even be a clause somewhere in the charter that says that the corporation must observe the laws of the United States, in which case it must follow even the laws that specify no punishment for violation. -Raymond]
  14. f0dder says:

    Well, by having an incorrect amount of stars, doesn't that actually mean they're not incorporating The Flag(TM) into their clothing, and such aren't even close to doing anything "illegal"? How *hideously* clever ;)

  15. Canadian says:

    > 39 stars because there is nobody from … Delaware …

    WHAT??! Nobody from Delaware made it on the US Winder Olympic team this year??! No wonder we beat you at Curling almost half the time. Also, taking away a star from the first state in the union would be heresy :)

  16. Woobly says:

    Well, it's not like it's the real Olympics, anyway…

  17. Azarien says:

    It amuses me how the US flag is treated as a sacred idol.

  18. wsl says:

    @Azarien: You're not alone..

  19. voo says:

    @Asbjørn: In my dictionary the definition of respect is "a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements". Anyhow this whole preoccupation with flags is a very American thing in my experience. I haven't met many Europeans who'd get particularly upset if their flag got "desecrated" (the rest of the world is also rather split on that topic I find).

    But then I find the whole concept of patriotism worrisome, or as George Bernhard Shaw used to define it: "Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it."

  20. Asbjørn says:

    @Azarien: *Any* national flag should be treated with the utmost respect. Which sadly, was not how most participants at the opening ceremony handled their flags. They were waving them all over the place and frequently dragging them along the ground. That is *not* how you treat a national flag – especially not your own! That also means you don't wrap the flag around you at sporting events. That is simply disgraceful behavior.

  21. Pseudo-Anonymous says:

    Nitpick: Shouldn't the "is" in the blog post title be "are"?

  22. @Pseudo-Anonymous: yes, or perhaps "uniform design… is…".

  23. Joshua says:

    [even if caught, there is no punishment]

    I'm pretty sure the law can be enforce by injuctive court order.

  24. Engywuck says:

    well, methinks the difference between Asbjørns and the general european attitude stems from the history of "real" flags being consecrated but simply parts of fabric having the "right" colours not being protected so much, i.e. the (ancient) difference between "Fahne" and "Flagge" in german (a "Fahne" being the non-replaceable (consecrated) banner of an institution (military unit, firefighters, …)).

  25. Roy says:

    @Asbjørn A flag is a piece of cloth with a pattern on it. It baffles me that (I find this attitude disproportionately more common in Americans than Europeans) there are so many rules regarding 'proper flag use' and how people can get so emotional regarding its use. I don't believe there is any such thing as a 'flag code' in my country and I fail to see how wrapping a flag around oneself would qualify as disgraceful behaviour, for example.

  26. @ Roy says:

    On the other hand, Europeans have laws prohibiting the flying of certain flags, mostly from the WWII era, whereas such an action is protected speech in America.

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