The term comes from the practice of awarding each such participant a cloth "letter", which is usually the school's initial or initials, for placement on a "letter sweater" or "letter jacket" intended for the display of such an award. In some instances, the sweater or jacket itself may also be awarded, especially for the initial award to a given individual.
Traditionally the athletic letter is associated with elite athletes, though in the last few decades there has been movement to make the letter award more accessible to all students by removing performance requirements.
In the case of a marching band, drumline, or colorguard member, usually a letterman is awarded to an upperclassmen or section leader.
Today, in order to distinguish "lettermen" from other team participants, schools often establish a minimum level of participation in a team's events and/or a minimum level of performance in order for a letter to be awarded.
In individual sports such as tennis and golf, the threshold for lettering is generally participation in one half or sometimes two-thirds of all matches contested. Frequently, other members of the team who fail to meet requirements for a letter are awarded a certificate of participation or other award considered to be of lesser value than a letter.
Some schools continue to base the awarding of letters according to performance, in team sports requiring a certain number of scores, steals, baskets or tackles, according to position and sport. In individual sports letters are often determined according to qualification for state meets or tournaments.
In the performing arts letters are awarded according to performance. Students who are selected for state choir or receive high scores at major instrumental competition may receive letters, or musicians who achieve first or second seat in their instrumental section.
Students participating in academic clubs can also be given this award if the requirements are met, what academic clubs this award can be received from are at the discretion of the school. In some schools general "academic letters" are awarded on the basis of GPA, usually students with a GPA at or above 3.8.
This term is not gender-specific; a qualifying participant in women's basketball or other women's sports is properly referred to as a letterman, as would be a qualifying female participant on a co-educational sports team.
A letterman jacket is a jacket traditionally worn by high school and college students in the United States to represent school and team pride as well as to display personal awards earned in athletics, academics or activities. Letterman jackets are also known as "Varsity Jackets" in some places.
The body (i.e., torso) is usually of boiled wool and the sleeves of leather with banded wrists and waistband. Letter jackets are usually produced in the school colors with the body of the jacket in the school's primary color and sleeves in the secondary color. They usually feature a banded collar for men or a hood for women.
The letter jacket derives its name from the varsity letter chenille patch on its left breast, which is almost always the first letter or initials of the high school or college the jacket came from.
The name of the owner usually appears either in chenille (matching the letter) or is embroidered on the jacket itself. The owner's graduation year usually appears in matching chenille, Placement of the name and year of graduation depends on school tradition. The year is most often sewn on the right sleeve or just above the right pocket.
Lettermen who play on a championship team often receive a large patch commemorating their championship that is worn on the back of the jacket.
Lettermen who participate in a sport in which medals are award often sew the medals onto their jackets to display their accomplishments.
Letter sweaters were a predecessor to letter jackets. The letter was usually quite large and centered (if the sweater was a pullover); stripes on one sleeve designated the number of letters won, with a star indicating a team captain.
Letterman jackets are almost never purchased before a student has earned a letter. In schools where only varsity letters are awarded this is usually in a students' junior or senior year. In schools where junior varsity letters are awarded, the jacket may also be purchased by junior varsity letter recipients, though the letter is placed just above the left pocket, leaving space for a (hopefully) future varsity letter.
Some schools may award letterman jackets to letter winners at the award ceremony, but more often the school only provides the letter.
In America and Canada a male athlete might give his girlfriend the letter as a token of his love. This is considered a sign of a truly intimate relationship as the Jacket is an honor. In the event of a breakup it is customary for the girl to return the jacket as a sign of rejection.
While it is commonly done, removing one's letter from the letterman jacket upon graduation is not firmly held in the protocol. Many graduates keep the letter on the jacket after graduation as a symbol of accomplishment.