The Real Reason NFL Referees Wear Black and White

Looking for an NFL referee to yell at after a bad call? Before 1945, this meant looking for guys in white shirts and … bow ties? Yes, this was the standard uniform for college and NFL referees for the first few decades of football. It’s dapper, to be sure, but it also led to some issues.

One incident, in particular, led to the iconic black-and-white look we know today.

Why do NFL referees wear black and white?

Being a football referee is a tough, literally thankless task. Get the call right? That’s supposed to be the status quo. Get it wrong? Fans, players, and coaches alike will rain hell down upon you.

This might explain why, before 1945, referees wore bow ties and crisp white shirts. Contemporaneously, this look meant to signal respect. White, in particular, was understood to symbolize purity and impartiality.

The problem is, a lot of football players wore white, too. In the era before bulky padding, this posed problems. In 1920, college football referee Lloyd Olds ended up being the target of a pass from an Arizona quarterback. They were both in white.

The moment stuck with Olds. He told the higher-ups at Eastern Michigan University that he thought the issue undermined the game enough to make a change. Olds recruited a tailor friend and came up with a design: thick black and white pinstripes, the perfect contrast.

It stuck locally and slowly caught on nationally. By 1945, the NFL itself made the utilitarian look standard. It may not be imbued with status and meaning like the old uniforms, but players and fans certainly appreciate the lowered risk of mistakes.

The modern NFL referee’s toolkit

The pinstripes were arguably one of the most crucial innovations in NFL referee “technology.” Today, they have many tools to assist them. Unfortunately, bow ties still haven’t made the list. The current era’s rotation of support tools includes:

  • Push-to-talk headsets to keep the entire team connected
  • A clock controller to stop and rewind the official game clock (carried by one official)
  • An elastic loop around their fingers to manually track downs — simple, efficient, low-tech … Why change it?
  • Several penalty markers — the bright, weighted handkerchiefs refs toss when they “flag” a play (If they run out, you may see them toss their hat instead.)
  • And, of course, the iconic whistles they use to stop plays

What do referees in other leagues wear?

The thick black and white pinstripes are an iconic, useful look. This may be why the NHL adopted the uniform in 1955 after testing clothing like cream-colored sweaters. Hockey’s fast pace requires the addition of a bright orange shoulder stripe to help players spot referees in a split second.

In the NBA, where refs stay out of the fray during the most action-packed moments, they simply need to be identifiable. This affords a more muted look: grey shirts with black shoulders as well as black slacks.

The long history of the MLB means there have been countless mandated looks for umpires. Similar to football, the initial look was commanded respect over utility: a full suit, jacket, and tie. Today, they wear black collared shirts, black windbreakers or blazers, and dark gray slacks.

There you have it: a succinct history of officiating uniforms in American sports, starting with the invention of the most iconic look. So take a moment to spare a thought for the poor referee.

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