The Social Psychology of Sportsball

Photo credit: wikimedia commons

Social psychology is a weird and confusing bird. Humans, as you might imagine, are complicated.  And so it goes that the most interesting research results usually have caveats in caveats, beginning with “well, we did this once in a lab with college sophomores” and ending with “….and it may or may not replicate”.*

Which is why the research on black jerseys and sports is so very fascinating. We’ve studied it from a few angles. We’ve looked at it in real life. It’s replicated, to an extent.

When teams wore black jerseys, they played more aggressively, getting more penalties. Okay, cool, maybe that’s a thing, you say, all skeptical-faced. But what if it’s just coincidence? Or what if there’s some mitigating factor?

Well, researchers looked at sixteen seasons of data from the National Hockey League (NHL) and National Football League (NFL). In both cases, teams have two uniforms: one with primarily white, and trim in the team color, the second in the team color with white trim.  In each case, the teams with black as the main color in their colored jerseys received more penalties when dressed in black.

Okay, but what if it’s just where the black jersey’s are worn? After all, NFL players traditionally wear their black jerseys at home games and the predominantly-white ones for away games. (The reverse is true for the NHL) What if it’s just a matter of the team playing more aggressively when home (in the NFL) or away (in the NHL)?

Well, that was examined, too! During the sixteen year sample, several teams switched uniform colors from non-black to black. In each case, there was an immediate uptick in penalties. This was even seen in one case where the switch happened mid-season–meaning that management and players hadn’t changed. When teams exchanged their black uniforms for different colors, there was an immediate decrease in penalties. This finding has also been replicated in other studies, where teams are randomly assigned a uniform color, then swap uniforms.

Common objection: Black jerseys are easier to spot–so referees are more likely to call penalties. 

Status: seems to be false. Even when players wore other dark colors, black uniforms had significantly more penalties.
Caveat: Jerseys that were perceived to be black, notably the Chicago Bears’, appeared to have the same status as black jerseys. So, dark jerseys don’t behave like black ones…unless they’re dark enough to appear black. That’s a bit of a fuzzy boundary.

Potential mechanism driving the black jersey effect: Black is seen as a symbol of malevolence and aggression.

Status: Somewhat supported, less replicated than the black jersey effect. The researchers who did the original research with the NHL and NFL also got naive participants (those who didn’t have any sports experience or recognition) to rate the ‘malevolence’ of players pictured in black and non-black uniforms. They consistently rated those in black uniforms higher.
Caveat: Small sample size, undergraduates, and heavily skewed towards women participants.

Further reading at NPR and PubMed.

*This is an unqualified dig; I actually adore social psychology. It’s messy and frustrating and often conflicts and makes sweeping claims, but it studies some of the most interesting subjects on the planet: us. 


  1. left0ver1under says

    I doubt that jersey colour has as much influence on called penalties as “homerism”, which has been shown to exist. A “homer” is an official who calls more penalties on the visiting team than the home team. Officials are sometimes intimidated by crowd noise.

    There has long been suspected homerism in college football and basketball, among other sports. During inter-conference regular season games, officials from the home team’s conference are used, people who might have a bias towards that team and help improve the conference’s record (and by extension rankings and places in big money bowl games). In bowl games, college football uses neutral officials.

    Homerism also happens in the NHL. It sometimes happens with referees (who travel game to game), but it happens a LOT with goal judges who live in one city and don’t travel. It is only during the playoffs that the NHL uses neutral goal judges. Instant replay has made this less of a problem since controversial calls can be reviewed (see: the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals, game 6).

    Former major league umpire Ron Luciano admitted in his autobiography that he deliberately called games in favour of the home team. He said he did it because if the home team leads after the top of the ninth inning, the bottom half isn’t played, the game ends and he could leave earlier. He may not have been fixing games, but it’s still unethical. He may have effected teams’ records and playoff chances, especially if he called more home games for certain teams than others.

    The worst cases of officiating bias must surely be in figure skating. The scoring is heavily weighted toward the “favourites”, and negotiated voting has led to judges being barred from the “sport”.

    • left0ver1under says

      Addendum: In hockey, baseball and basketball, the home teams usually play in white or light colours while the road team plays in dark colours (or in baseball, grey). In football, the home team wears dark colours and the road team wears light colours.

    • Kate Donovan says

      Did you get a chance to check out the links I had?

      For one, homerism could apply in the case of the NHL, but in the case of the NFL, black is worn for *home* games, and the same issue of penalties is seen.

      Second, if you take a look at the Cornell experiments (NPR link), you’ll see that homerism didn’t account for the random assignment and swapping, where teams were told what color they were wearing.

      Thirdly, if you take a look at the third part of the PubMed link, you’ll see that some teams changed jersey colors and had an immediate change in penalties, something found when teams switched to non-black jerseys AND when teams switched to black jerseys. This was, as I noted, observed even when no other variables (team members, management, season) had changed.

  2. Callinectes says

    The Sportland Sports. Number one in points!

    I’ve also heard something about wearing red, though I’m not sure what studies there are. Something about the psychological effect of wearing red that cows the opposition in ways that say, blue, does not. And since red versus blue is a common arrangement in sports that do not have team strips (such as sparring), this may be a concern.

    Oh, and it might be messing up my Halo! That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

  3. DrVanNostrand says

    I live in the Bay Area and I’ve always wondered if that’s part of the reason why the Raiders are considered super “dirty” and “nasty”. Obviously that also has a lot to do with the fact that Oakland is has a large black population and the fact that the team logo is an angry pirate.

    For my part, I’ve been to games at Oakland and SF, and SF fans were probably meaner: One dude tried to dump a beer on me from one floor above (he missed), and one dude stole my cheesehead (I think he was white, for the record). In both cases, however, the vast majority of fans were very nice. Just a few bad apples. Losing my cheesehead sucked, but what I felt most badly about was that I didn’t object strongly enough when some wanker struck up a conversation with me full of really offensive racial dogwhistles. I was stunned, the conversation was awful, and I just wanted to get out, but in retrospect, I let that dude get away with far too much. Anyway, I thought this anecdote was at least tangentially related to the psychology of sportsball.

    • F [is for failure to emerge] says

      Perhaps also the name and logo, along with the black bits of uniform. (In which case, their market identity is “working”, after a fashion, to promote them as badass.)

    • says

      I think the Raiders’ reputation has more to do with former owner Al Davis. He’d take players that had bad reputations, and they’d work out under the Raider’s coaching staff.

      I don’t think the Raider’s are like that anymore, but the reputation lives on.

  4. ceesays says

    Hmm. there was a year in the NHL where all teams had three jerseys and wore all three colours during home games. I remember that much because I had occasion to see a lot of home games at that point. I wonder if those were the years they took results?

    and then I click on the NPR website, read the caption under the photo, and cry, “OBJECTION! That’s not tripping, that’s a cross-check!”

    And that kind of killed the credibility of the source for me. I mean come on look at the photo! Tripping has the stick from knee to ankle and the tripped player usually falls forward. Where’s the stick, and which direction is the off balance player falling? You don’t need a damn degree for this.

    but historical game data did indeed include the three jersey years. okay, curiosity satisfied. still grumbling about that photo being called tripping.

  5. jester says

    How do we know the effect seen isn’t the psychological effect of the black jersey on the viewers’ (refs and naive participants in smaller study) perception of the players’ aggressiveness, and not the actual player behavior? How can we objectively rate “aggressiveness”?

    • says

      That was my thought as well.
      The data point of “aggression” is penalties, which are observations made by officials.
      I believe this allows for observational bias. If black jerseys are perceivedas being “bad guys” then they are going to be scrutinized harder and called more frequently.
      I, personally, would judge aggressiveness using time to reset fir play in football or time for new players to take the field. An aggressive team would be faster to prepare for the set and spend less time readying for a play.

    • Merlin says

      I also wondered about that. I can only speak to USian football, but I have noticed that there is a very subjective element to whether a player is called for various penalties and whether it is blown off as “part of the game”. I wonder if its less of a “pays more attention to…” bias, and more of a “assumes the worst of…” or “does not get benefit of the doubt for…” bias. Still, it is quite an interesting phenomenon.

  6. John Horstman says

    I don’t find the causation suggested by this correlation at all surprising. Black is culturally constructed as a tough/badass clothing color (especially if it’s black leather – I’d actually bound the idea of black as a symbol of malevolence and aggression more specifically to clothing, as it’s WEARING black that is the independent variable here – if the decontextualized color were functioning as a behavioral trigger, we’d expect to see more aggressive behavior from the other team as well, since they’re staring at opponents in black jerseys, so clearly the contextual factor of who is wearing the black clothes is important), and the idea that people would feel (and thus act) more aggressive when picturing themselves as more badass is perfectly consistent with what we know of how self-perception/self-image works. This could also motivate observational bias, as suggested by jester and Cynickal, and if I had to guess, I’d think both contribute to some degree. It would also be interesting to make some ‘soft’-coded (pastel colors, curves in logo/pattern design instead of points and straight lines) jerseys to see if the same link is observed between behavior and non-aggression signifiers.

  7. Pen says

    It would be interesting to have viewers, educated or otherwise, evaluate a game on film, then use image technology to flip the jersey colours. That way we might find out if the players in the black jerseys actually are more aggressive or simply appear more aggressive or more noticeable to viewers.

  8. ChrisG says

    Not to pick nits, but I’m going to…

    @4:You’re absolutely right, that photo is a cross-check, not a trip, and this is important because a cross-check is considered MUCH nastier. At least it was when I was a kid, playing pick-up shinny.

    Also, the NPR article notes that NHL teams shifted from white to coloured sweaters for home teams in 2003. What it doesn’t mention is that home teams wore white only starting in the 1970-71 season. Prior to that, home teams always wore coloured sweaters. And prior to expansion in 1968, there was only one team with a predominately black home uniform – the Boston Bruins. In fact, none of the six team that joined the league in 1968 had black predominating. That shift didn’t really start in hockey until the ’80s.

    That said, I have heard anecdotally that teams who wore black were considered dirtier. Of course, one of the dirtiest teams ever, the mid-’70s Flyers, wore orange!

  9. timberwoof says

    I played adult amateur ice hockey for over fifteen years. As a goalie I got to watch and more than occasionally experience such aggression. I’m aware of confirmation bias. Nevertheless, I’ve often seen the effect described in the article. I’ll add that in this situation, the home/away distinction doesn’t matter to the refs (it’s “home ice” to both teams) and there is generally no crowd noise.

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