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Appropriate Sports Memorabilia and Novelties for the Office

Updated on February 8, 2011


I must admit that with fantasy football, watching the NFL draft, catching a 7s tourney at a bar, avidly playing golf, racquetball, and flag football, I consider myself a sports nut as well. With evidence in my home, on my car, and in my casual wardrobe, one could easily figure out which teams and sports I follow with an enormous passion rather easily. One place I exercise caution for my love of certain teams is in the office. You may not think that an innocent bobble head Jerry Rice figurine on your desk would mean that much, but don’t be so sure. How you decorate your cube/office/desk/work area with sports memorabilia can have a larger signaling effect (both positive and negative) than you might expect.

Maybe it’s time you took inventory of your sports team office decorations and ask yourself if they are sending a positive or negative signal about you to your coworkers and more importantly, to your bosses. Which sports items are more or less appropriate for the office? Are you currently leveraging these simple items to their full potential? It's crazy but can these simple items affect your pay, bonus, career progression? Maybe you do not have any sports memorabilia in your workspace....should you? Even if you hate sports?

Sports Memorabilia and Novelties in the Office…Really? Who Cares?

Take two individuals who you have never met in your office who have similar titles, similar roles, and exactly similar office spaces. Both have the token pictures of family, vacation photos, fern growing in the corner, etc. But there is one difference. Employee A has an NFL team helmet on his desk, a college basketball team logo banner hanging on the wall, and an autographed baseball on the shelf, while employee B has no sports memorabilia in his office. QUICKLY, jot down your first impressions of the two people and then continue reading. What did you come upwith?

Whether or not you like it, we all use something called frame dependence. Frame dependence can be thought of as making decisions, forming opinions, and navigating uncertain situations based on our past experiences and encounters. Your individual frame dependence probably influenced how you answered the above “first impression” question. For instance, if you have or have had generally negative experiences with sports (i.e. childhood memories of being rejected or missing the cut on your sports teams, breaking your arm playing baseball, being picked on by jocks in high school) you may have taken a more guarded, untrusting, or downright dislike for employee A relative to employee B. The opposite is true as well. If you were the captain of your sports team, made some of your best friends in life through sports, or have children who are active and enjoy sports, etc. and generally have good experiences with sports, you may have shown preference for Employee A. To go even further, let’s say you were and are currently indifferent to sports. You have no strong opinion either way. Or maybe you told yourself “there’s no way to have an opinion on someone just by sports stuff in their office.” I would and will argue that due to the amount of social interaction, media exposure, political debate on a national level (think steroids in baseball), political debate on a local level (think high school sports and pay-to-play), etc. that sports will somehow influence, even slightly, each and every person.

In summation, in a world where a resume can be tossed because of a single grammar mistake, it’s important to pay attention to the signals your office sports memorabilia is sending.

An aside: I realize sports memorabilia can be just as easily swapped for art memorabilia, music memorabilia, fashion memorabilia, etc. I have chosen sports because it is a topic that interests me and something that I feel like I know a thing or two about. Whether it’s sports, art, music, etc. the way we decorate and personalize our space can have a dramatic effect on the message we send out and how opinions are formed of us.

Sports Memorabilia and Novelties in the Office: A Liability

I am not the authority on what is and is not appropriate because every situation is different. Some offices are more conservative than others. I will merely offer some scenarios that you might be apart of which may lead to some negative sentiment.

The Lone Ranger

Take a look around your office; do a lot of people have personalized items in their workspace? If they don’t and you decide to hang a 5 foot by 5 foot banner of your college sports team in your office, it may hurt you. While you may just be showing pride in your alma mater, others may see you as boastful, or even insecure. Pay attention to where you are as well. Did you grow up in Dallas and now work in Philadelphia? It may not be such a good idea to hang that Cowboys Super Bowl Champions banner on your door. Even if you are a die hard fan, it’s probably not smart to single yourself out in this situation. The last thing you need for your career is for everyone to hate you (at least on a subliminal level).

The Individualistic Team Player

Perhaps the nature of the sport you are showcasing can have an effect on your coworkers. For instance, if you are the leader of a team, or the largest portion of your work is team oriented, images and collections of various sports may seem like the perfect decor. But wait, if you are a TEAM leader or work exclusively in a TEAM, having pictures or associated items of your favorite golfer, tennis player, boxer, or track athlete may in fact signal something negative. Each of these sports involves a superstar/singular polarizing figure. Even though a golfer has a caddie, boxer has a trainer, and tennis player has a coach, glory and fortune in these sports is celebrated by the individual. You wouldn’t want someone on your team (at work) questioning your willingness to share the glory or act in the best interests of the team simply because of a picture, right?

The Unfortunate Fan

You should consider the characteristics of the very team, sport, or athlete whose novelties are displayed in your office. I went for an interview once at a Private Equity firm and was interviewed by the firm's "hot shots."  One of them happened to be a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. I walked into his office, sat down, and immediately noticed a bright yellow towel hung on the wall so that from my angle, it was just over top of his head. For all of you who know, obviously this was a "Terrible Towel." Even though I knew what it was, I couldn't help but be distracted with the fact that everyday, this guy has the word "terrible" over top of his head. You walk in and boom...terrible. Do you want someone to associate this with you? I feel for you Santa Cruz Banana Slug, Monticello Boll Weevil, and Wichita Shockers fans out there. You have the unfortunate reality of having some weird and in some cases offensive team names. Your task of showing school pride is a bit more difficult. Also, I feel bad for you Detroit Lions/insert any terrible team fans. It's probably OK if you live in Detroit to plaster your office with their gear, but if you are anywhere else, you're really plastering your office with associated words like "bad," "underperforming," "inadequate," etc. Again, this is not really the image you want to project. If you're a young guy like me working with older colleagues, the mascot of your favorite team might not be helping your cause in being taken seriously. For example, I think Bruce Buckeye is one of the funniest/interesting mascots in the NCAA. But I would think twice about putting a bobble-head buckeye in my office. I mean, come on, he's a cross between Where's Waldo and a mime and his head is a giant nut, or acorn, or something. You'd probably be OK with Bruce considering the fact that Ohio State is such a universally recognized institution, but if you're a hilltopper fan, you may want to leave your beloved mascot statuette at home. I would also think twice about items having to do with controversial individuals (think Mike Vick, Pete Rose, any baseball player who admitted or lied about steroids, etc.).

Sports Memorabilia and Novelties in the Office: An Asset

Of course, most of the things listed as a liability can actually be an asset depending on the circumstance. If you are new to your office, these items can serve as easy conversation starters. They will almost invite someone to ask you about them. They can serve as a means of telling people where you come from and what experiences you might have had. Having a novelty in your office might actually show your bosses and coworkers that you ARE a team player. It might convey that you understand commitment, loyalty, and in some form or another, you are used to pressure or dissappointment. Bonus points are awarded if your favorite NBA team just so happens to be the same as your boss's. I believe these items, if tastefully placed, open a person up to everyone else. It shows that you have a life outside of work and that you might be passionate about SOMETHING. These items can serve as a means for people to connect with you. I know for a fact that when my favorite NFL team is on Monday Night Football, some of my coworkers and bosses will specifically watch the game because they are interested in talking to me about it the next day. I think people generally like hearing about someone else's passion. If you have a good sense of humor, and if your team gets blown out of the water, it can serve as humorous fodder for the next day.

Having said all of this I would caution not to use sports novelties as a means to get ahead. For example, if your boss is a Minnesota Vikings fan and your office is in Florida, I wouldn't try slipping a Vikings knick-knack on my desk in hopes that it will give you a leg up on your coworkers. If you hate sports all together and feel like you need to put something on your desk to fit in, don't. If you don't like sports you don't like sports. In both of these situations, at some point, your boss/coworkers will chat you up about your items and they will know if you are BS'ing.

Suggestions for Appropriate Sports Memorabilia and Novelties in the Office

Now that the pros and cons have been laid out, it's probably helpful for me to give my suggestions on what may be considered good sports office items. I like to follow the "Cologne/Perfume Rule" when it comes to putting these things in my work space. By that, I mean, just like cologne or perfume, someone shouldn't notice your sports decorations until they're just at the point where it's pleasant to know they are there. These things include:

  • A small tumbler with a team logo tastefully displayed
  • A picture of the venue where your team plays
  • A family picture taken with you and your kids dressed for the game
  • Vintage items, like old logo banners or signs for whatever reason seem more tasteful
  • Desk Clock, Pencil Holder, Calendar....something that also serves a utility in the office
  • A team-themed picture frame (even if the picture in the frame isn't sport related)
  • A picture your kid drew of the team you both love
  • A ticket collage is always a good idea
  • If you caught a baseball or football during a game that would be a great item. It provides for a great story.
  • Avoid items that are "out of place." By that I mean don't hang a towel on the wall (towels aren't clipped to walls). That goes for shirts and jerseys as well (unless they're framed). Don't put a team coozie on your desk with no drink in it!
  • Avoid doing too much. One bobble-head is probably OK. Your whole collection of bobble-heads is probably not.
  • Avoid anything that is distracting. If you're a Suns fan, opt for the white background in your item instead of the orange. If you're a Seahawks fan, go for the blueish color, not the neon green.
  • Finally, if you think anyone, including coworkers, bosses, subordinates, clients, potential clients, etc. may find a particular item offensive in any way, just leave it at home.  It's not worth the grief. 

I'm hoping that throughout this article most of you picked up on the slight sarcasms and generalities I've made.  I did want this to be fun as well as informative.  If you didn't get much practical advice out of it, at the very least, I hope you enjoyed the entertainment. 


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