What Will Redskins’ True Colors Be in Tampa Bay?
When the Redskins took the field just after 4 PM Sunday at the Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, it was no surprise that their uniforms didn’t match the team’s name. In fact, the team has suited up in white-on-white
uniforms for the past five games, starting with their victory over the Rams in St. Louis on December 4. They haven’t lost since.
Mere superstition, right? Maybe not. A given in competitive sports for centuries, superstition can do a lot for a player’s confidence (though it’s hard to imagine that, in the heat of battle, the Redskins are thinking about what color their pants are). But research by psychologists has found that the color of a team’s uniform can affect the outcome.
A 1988 study by Cornell social psychologists Mark G. Frank and Thomas Gilovich, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
, found that professional football and hockey teams wearing black uniforms were at a significant disadvantage when it came to the referees. As the paper states, “teams with black uniforms are overwhelmingly likely to rank near the top of their leagues in penalties.”
Frank and Gilovich explored a number of explanations. In one experiment, seasoned high school and college referees were shown videos of two versions of an identical play, previously staged: one in which the defense was dressed in black and one in which it was dressed in white. (A control group saw both plays with the color turned down.) The refs were then asked to judge whether the defense had committed a penalty in a borderline situation. The experiment found that “the referees were more inclined to penalize the defensive team if they saw the black versions of the two plays.”
The study does not address the inverse—whether white protects a team from penalties, and the psychologists also explore the possibility that wearing black encourages aggressive behavior.
Since switching to all-white uniforms, the Redskins’ average penalties have dropped by a very small margin, from 6.8 per game to 6.6 per game, though the sample is too small to be significant.
Gilovich, reached in his Cornell office this week, offers another insight on the subject. “Typically people engage in these superstitions to prevent themselves from losing, not allowing them to win,” he says. “Objectively it’s the same thing, but psychologically it’s very different.”
That makes sense, as the team approached coach Joe Gibbs requesting the change to all-white uniforms after dropping three straight in November.
But another study, published last May in Nature
, has interesting news for the Redskins. In an analysis of contests in which teams were randomly assigned blue or red jerseys, the study concluded that “wearing red is consistently associated with a higher probability of winning.”
That might be bad news for the Redskins: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers probably will suit up in red jerseys Saturday when Washington travels to Florida for the first round of the playoffs. The Redskins lost to Tampa in the regular season by a single point on a disputed game-ending conversion, giving the Buccaneers a better season record and home-field advantage in the playoffs, meaning they get their choice of uniform color.
Redskins officials say the team will wear white again—assuming the Bucs don’t try a bit of psychological warfare and make a last-minute switch to white-on-white. But that would force the Redskins back into red. For them, it could be a win-win situation.