USC quarterback Caleb Williams would appear to have a firm enough grip on football to project as the first pick in this year’s NFL draft. But there’s something about the Heisman trophy winner that keeps throwing off fans and talent evaluators alike, and it’s right at his fingertips.
Williams, you see, is one of those guys who decorates his nails, unveiling a new paint scheme every time he takes the field and drawing criticism for spelling out foul messages to opponents across his fingers. His gameday tradition dates back four seasons, to Williams’s high school senior year, and takes inspiration from his mother, who is a nail technician. “You gotta keep your hands fresh,” Williams said. “This is where all the gold comes from.”
But in the hyper masculine world of male sport, it figures that Williams’ style would annoy some. “What’s up with all these dudes painting their nails nowadays,” wrote former NFL wide receiver Cole Beasley, who is not known for his progressive views.
“It’s colour on nails,” wrote Kenny Stills, a former teammate of Beasley’s. “That’s like someone asking what’s up with all these dudes getting tattoos. Self expression.”
“Tattoos tell a story based on the image you get,” Beasley replied. “Painted nails have no image. What exactly are you expressing? [Be]cause I can only think of one thing. Lol.”
Stills posted a video of himself throwing up Vulcan salute with the Tropical Skittles-themed manicure he scored for Burning Man and shot back at Beasley. “I really had no clue men painting their nails stirred people up,” he wrote. “Gotta paint mine more often.”
It isn’t just athletes who are embracing fingernail polish. The comic Pete Davidson joked on Saturday Night Live that he paints his nails because: “I love making my uncles uncomfortable.” Machine Gun Kelly founded a cruelty-free, vegan nail polish line endorsed by Houston Rockets guard Jalen Green. Harry Styles and the rapper Lil’ Yachty have their own lines, too. According to 2021 research by Fashionista, the number of manicure kits on wishlists for the shopping app Klarna had increased by 251 percent since October 2020 – and 10 percent of those were from men.
Since Brad Pitt sported rainbow fingernails at the 2015 Palm Springs Film Festival, it might seem as if “male polish” has been appropriated from a goth expression and a LGBTQ+ trend into the male mainstream – but the concept isn’t entirely novel. According to a 2018 paper from the University of Rochester Medical Center, men were colouring their nails as far back as 3500BC. According to researcher Jeanette Zambito, in Babylon “male warriors adorned their nails with ground minerals as part of a pre-battle ritual designed to intimidate their enemies.”
Nevertheless, some see nail painting as a road to ruin for the young boys and men of today – and not all the detractors are necessarily conservatives. In 2022, the rapper Soulja Boy went viral for calling out peers who paint their nails. “Stop playing,” he raged. “Y’all don’t see that through, huh?”
On his hit YouTube sports talkshow “It Is What It Is,” the rapper Ma$e said seeing Dwyane Wade wear nail polish while being honoured during a recent Miami Heat game was like catching “Jordan in lingerie. It’s just crushing me.”
“I’m not mad at that take,” said show co-host Cam’ron. “For the last however many years, Dwyane Wade has become very eclectic. His blouses or shirts or whatever you want to call it.”
Their views on Wade’s fashion choices may be old-fashioned, but the rappers raise a point. Male athletes aren’t solely ballplayers any more – not since David Beckham first rocked up in a sarong. They are runway models who can launch a fashion show simply by walking into work. That these same trendsetters would slowly begin embracing nail polish is just the latest sign of a bygone trend coming back around again. Through the centuries, caste differences came to be distinguished by shade of nail polish, with darker colours denoting higher class. There’s evidence to suggest the ancient Egyptians and Chinese coated their nails in polish made from henna, flower and beeswax – and did not discriminate by gender. That didn’t become an obvious thing until 19th century Victorian women began painting their nails to “signify purity and cleanliness.” It took another 100 years or so for male polish to mount a counterculture comeback with Iggy Pop, Kurt Cobain and other gritty male icons. But it’s only recently that the trend has caught on in sports.
When it comes to bold manicures, it’s been Florence Griffith Joyner and other women of the track who have historically flashed their claws. The testosterone-driven world of male sports is sometimes slow to give in to what some would perceive as a softer side. It’s taken athletes like Beckham and Dennis Rodman to help carry that side to victory. (“Painting your nails doesn’t make u gay,” Rodman tweeted in 2013. “I love to paint my nails. Nothing wrong with that. Be you. Always.”) In the 1970s, Pittsburgh Steelers star Lynn Swann trained as a ballet dancer. In the naughties, Cris Carter was the freak Minnesota Viking who went for routine manicures. Seven years ago the New Orleans Saints were the outlier NFL franchise that staffed a dedicated yoga instructor; Tom Brady was caught doing poses on the sidelines. Nowadays, it’s nothing for two dudes to shoot the breeze over mani-pedis. When NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders isn’t fishing or coaching football, he’s wondering if his surgically altered foot should entitle him to an eight-toe discount at nail salons. And baseball catchers often use nail varnish to communicate hand signals to their pitchers more clearly.
Even as Beasley was deriding his football peers for polishing their nails, one X user wondered if he was the same player who tied his golden locks in a manbun – once the universal symbol of the alpha male in touch with his softer side. Even as Cam’ron & Co scoffed at Wade’s nails, it’s worth noting that the rapper also once taped a show while getting a manicure on set.
The space between yesterday’s fashion trend and tomorrow’s pre-game routine is only a matter of time. It just takes trailblazers like Williams to get detractors like Beasley to catch on.
By Andrew Lawrence