City of Champions: Only winners get jerseys on Spirit of Detroit

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

The Spirit of Detroit statue outside of Detroit city hall is a bit worn down from getting all dressed up. But a new policy, approved mid-month by the Detroit-Wayne Joint Building Authority, will limit opportunities to clothe the statue going forward. From this point on, jerseys are for champions only.

The Spirit of Detroit statue in downtown Detroit sports a Detroit Lions jersey.

Beyond that, there is another condition: Only those sports teams that have won national championships and make a $25,000 contribution for the statue's maintenance will get to dress up the Spirit.

No championship and no contribution, no jersey.

The resolution extends the ban to include "any decoration of any kind on the artwork."

Greg McDuffee, executive director of the authority which owns and operates the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, said the Detroit Red Wings' 1997 Stanley Cup championship is the first time a jersey adorned the Spirit statue. Some 18 other jerseys have been worn since. 

In recent years, championship game appearances (Michigan State's appearance in the College Football Playoff in 2015), and anniversaries (the University of Michigan turning 200 in 2017, along with the United Way's 100th anniversary, which came a week later) have been reason enough for the Spirit to wear a top. 

But putting clothes on the Spirit "erodes the wax coating and patina covering, and the process of installation and removal can result in damage," a statement on the new policy from Detroit City Councilman Scott Benson says. McDuffee confirmed the information.

Beyond the damage to the statue itself, "the installation of jerseys distracts from the important message conveyed by The Spirit of Detroit," Benson said.


The placement of jerseys on the statue has been controversial from the very beginning.

In June 1997, after the Detroit Red Wings bested the Philadelphia Flyers, a "non-sanctioned" jersey was placed on the Spirit, archives show. Building staff quickly removed it. 

"Their job is to take away anything that doesn't belong," said Anthony Neely, a spokesman for then-Mayor Dennis Archer, at the time. 

But hearts quickly softened at City Hall.

"It was a beautiful gesture and a beautiful concept," Neely said.

Marshall Fredericks, the sculptor who created the statue, was not supportive of it wearing clothes, championship or not. 

"It would be a shame to injure that piece of work," the late Fredericks, whose statue was placed in 1958, said at the time.

Fredericks died the next year. In the time since, the jerseys of champions such as the 2004 Detroit Pistons and the 2006 Detroit Shock have adorned the statue. But so have Detroit Tigers and Lions jerseys. 

In 2009, the Michigan State Spartans hoops team was set to compete at Ford Field for a national championship. But there was no Sparty jersey on the statue, because the school determined the $25,000 stipend was too high.

"They said we appreciate the information, but we're electing not to participate," McDuffee told The News at the time. 

The stipend had become policy in September 2008, just after the statue was restored in its 50th year at a cost north of $150,000. That 2008 renovation is why the Spirit didn't don a Red Wings jersey after the team's 2008 Stanley Cup victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins.

"We were at a point where the integrity of the artwork was being compromised," McDuffee said then.

In 2002, with the Red Wings making another run for the Stanley Cup against the Carolina Hurricanes, then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick used the jersey issue as a political hockey puck. 

Despite a 1999 resolution from the Detroit-Wayne authority forbidding the placement of jerseys on the statue, a red jersey went up on the statue anyway. Kilpatrick dared the authority to pull it down.

"The Detroit building authority, they must be for Carolina," Kilpatrick said at the time. "We're putting the jersey on the Jolly Green Giant. They can take it down if they want to."

Amy Paul, 31, and Antonio Cain, 29, from Lincoln Park, described the new policy as a missed opportunity. 

"The statue should be for everybody," Paul said. "Besides, aren't there bigger issues out there to worry about?"

Said Cain: "If you come here from Ann Arbor or somewhere out of town, and see a Lions jersey on (the statue), you might think 'hey, those Detroiters really support their teams.' Why wait 'til a team wins a title?"