Tattoos in sports

Dennis Rodman tattoos

I find the whole psychology of tattoos fascinating. (Read, “Until I Find You,” by John Irving, not only because I adore everything by John Irving, but also because it’s an interesting look at tattoo artists and people who get tattoos and the ultimate tattoo-ees, those with full-body tattoos).

Whenever I see someone with a tattoo, I wonder what motivated him/her to get the Tasmanian Devil or a girlfriends initials or a Picasso painting eternally etched on their skin. I wonder whether they still like it, whether they think about having it removed, whether they want another one, whether they wonder how it impacts other people’s views of them.

I’m honestly not judging here.

For one thing, the world is a different place than it used to be. I heard a statistic recently (excellent sourcing, I know), that something like 60% of CEOs in five years will have a tattoo. Very different than even five years ago. For another thing, I have a tattoo myself, which I absolutely love. I have had it for 13 years, so it’s not lust for a new thing, it’s the real, long term adoration. I also go through periods where I crave another tattoo.

For me, that’s what it is – a craving. A whole-mind-and-body desire for a tattoo. When I go through the second-tattoo wanting phase, I research and refine the design constantly, and I obsess about it. Now that is tattoo lust, plain and simple. If you’ve had it, you understand it. If you haven’t…well, then you’re like my mom, who simply cannot understand the fascination. I’m not talking about getting a tattoo because its fashionable now; I’m talking about true tattoo desire.

…but I digress…

One of my quirky habits is noting tattoos on sports figures. It’s very interesting to me that some sports – basketball, for example – have a lot of ink, whereas other sports – baseball, for example – are much more ink-free. Obviously, there are exceptions, but as a rule, it seems to me some sports are much more ink heavy, both in terms of the number of players with tattoos and the number of tattoos per player, than others. And I wonder why that is.


Let’s start with basketball. If you are not a basketball fan, you might not be aware of how much ink there is on the court at any time, but I urge you to turn on a game for the sheer interest of the tattoo study.

When I started doing research for this blog, I found out there is actually a book called, “In the Paint: Tattoos of the NBA and the Stories Behind Them.” Imagine that! The ESPN story on the book notes, “Body art dominates the NBA, and for many players, their number of tattoos is higher than their nightly scoring average.”

And many basketball players certainly do have ink…a lot of it. And we’re not talking about subtle tattoos or tattoos in places you can’t see. Take Allen Iverson…I don’t know how many tattoos he has. 17, maybe? They are on his back, hands, neck, arms, chest, and legs. And he still has plenty more room for more. I think Rasheed Wallace has one of the most impressive tattoos in basketball It seems that most basketball players have tattoos, and they aren’t at all hesitant to add more. Many of them have important meanings. But some don’t. Jason Williams recently got “White Boy” tattooed on his hands…in case you were confused, I guess.


At first, I thought football players were not big on tattoos, but after a closer look, I was wrong. Football players also are big on tattoos, although they don’t seem to be as covered with them as basketball players. Shawne Merriman has quite a few tattoos, as do other NFL players. Jeremy Shockey has a colorful eagle on his right arm. My son likes Channing Crowders, “Laugh Now, Cry Later” tattoo. Overall, though, there really is less ink in the NFL than in the NBA. Even google searches for NFL and tattoos give far less information than searches for NBA and tattoo.

It seems to me, defensive players seem to be heavier on the ink than offensive players, but I haven’t done extensive research on that yet. I do know quarterbacks don’t seem to have tattoos, at least none you can see. Maybe their agents vetoed the idea?


Moving on to baseball. I get the feeling that baseball managers, owners, and fans, are just less ok with tattoos than fans for basketball and football, because even baseball players who have tattoos don’t flaunt them as happily as basketball players or football players. In fact, in 2004, Major League Baseball required relief pitcher Justin Miller to wear long sleeves when he pitches because, they said, his tattoos are a distraction to the opposing batters. It’s cleverly called the Justin Miller rule, and teams invoke it when pitchers have extensive tattoos. Other tattooed baseball players are Jonny Gomes , Prince Fielder, Jason Giambi, Scott Spezio, Joel Zumaya, and Dmitri Young, among others. But there is less talk about it, less modeling of it. Most baseball players seem to keep their tattoos under their shirts.


I break soccer tattoos down into two categories; US soccer players and the rest of the world.

American soccer players seem to have very little ink, with the exception of a little tribal art they probably got in college. I’m a soccer fan, so you would think I could name off a bunch of soccer tattoos, but off hand the only one I can think of is Natasha Kai. On the men’s side, none really stand out. After some research, I came up with the fact that Landon Donovan has a hummingbird tattooed on the inside of his wrist. That’s about it. Now, in the “rest of the world” soccer there are a bunch. I mean a bunch. Too many to go into. So I’ll just mention the star of the tattoo soccer world: David Beckham. You can read all about David Beckham’s body art here. He has a lot of it.

Obviously, there are other sports. Golf, not a big tattoo-fest, mixed martial arts (and boxing, for that matter), lots and lots of ink. I’m guessing lacrosse follows the model of US soccer, but I’m not sure. Polo? Probably not. But when I get some extra time, I’m going to look into it.

When I was telling my son about this blog, specifically about football players and wondering why it seems like defensive players have more ink than offensive players, he said, “Offensive players aren’t supposed to look as tough.” I wonder if that’s it. If the athletes who get tattoos are the tough ones. Allen Iverson certainly has the reputation of being…um…tough. Landon Donovan? Not so much.

Actually, as I re-read this and think about it, I think it’s probably much more basic. I think it may come down to a simple socio-economic equation. I think maybe tattoos still are more acceptable in less wealthy socio-economic circles, and I think maybe kids who start out in poor neighborhoods and fight and become professional athletes are more likely to get tattoos than are professional athletes who come from wealthier backgrounds.

Or maybe it’s even more basic than that. Maybe professional athletes get tattoos because they can. Because they don’t have to go to job interviews where they will be turned down because of a tattoo. Maybe athletes in basketball and football are more likely to get tattoos because the culture of the sport allows, maybe even encourages, it, whereas other sports frown on it or even forbid it.

In any case, it’s an interesting phenomenon. Next time you’re watching a sporting event, check out the ink!


Reprinted from September 2010

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Lisa M. Ruth
Lisa M. Ruth is Editor-in-Chief of CDN. In addition to her editing and leadership duties, she also writes on international events, intelligence, and other topics. She has worked with CDN as a journalist since 2009. Lisa is also President of CTC International Group, Inc., a research and analysis firm in South Florida, providing actionable intelligence to decisionmakers. She started her career at the CIA, where she won several distinguished awards for her service. She holds an MA in international relations from the University of Virginia, and a BA in international relations from George Mason University. She also serves as Chairman of the Board of Horses Healing Hearts, and is involved with several other charitable organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, The Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and AYSO.