Who or what is the real Kingmaker? Wayne Gretzky or the color black? We'll never know, because the Los Angeles Kings have cavalierly let a scientific opportunity slide right by them. By changing the color of their uniforms in the same season they acquired Gretzky, the NHL's eight-time MVP, the Kings ruined what could have been the definitive study of the impact of black uniforms on the temper of a team.
Rogie Vachon, general manager of the Kings, admits he failed science in favor of an opportunity to improve the team, which last season finished 18th in the overall standings. This year L.A. had the fourth-best record in the NHL. "We've changed the face of our team so much this year," he says, that it's hard to tell what's due to color changes and what's due to personnel changes. "If we had the same players, it would be easier to find out."
Well, thank goodness there are more diligent individuals to study the color black. In a study published in 1988 by the American Psychological Association that was ominously entitled The Dark Side of Self and Social Perception: Black Uniforms and Aggression in Professional Sports, researchers Tom Gilovich and Mark G. Frank made a formal investigation of black uniforms. Gilovich, an associate professor of psychology at Cornell, and Frank, who was a doctoral student at the school when the study was undertaken, asked: Can a peaceful team suddenly turn tough by changing to black uniforms?
Sports legend points to an affirmative. Some of the most notorious players ever—for instance, Lester (the Molester) Hayes and Jack (the Assassin) Tatum of the Oakland/L.A. Raiders and Dave (the Hammer) Schultz of the Philadelphia Flyers have been outfitted in black (the study defined black-clad as "if a team's base jersey color was black, or if its pants, helmet, and trim were black").
April 16, 1989
The Assassin. The Molester. The Hammer. If that lineup of black-clad baddies doesn't tell you something, just compare the uniforms of professional hockey and football, sports with a reputation for aggressiveness, with the basic white of such supposedly gentle sports as basketball or baseball.
In the NBA only two teams wear predominantly black (the Portland Trail Blazers and the San Antonio Spurs), and in baseball only two teams qualified under the study's criteria (the Pittsburgh Pirates and the San Francisco Giants). But nearly a third of the teams in the NHL wear black—the Vancouver Canucks, the Flyers, the Boston Bruins, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Chicago Blackhawks and, as of this season, the Kings, who had their best regular-season finish in eight years. Nearly 20% of NFL teams wear black—the Raiders, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Cincinnati Bengals, the New Orleans Saints and the Chicago Bears. (The Bears actually wear dark blue, but even John Madden has mistaken it for black.)
Do you think all those football and hockey teams wear black because it doesn't show dirt? Think again. "In sports where intimidation is important," says Gilovich, "you get teams wearing black uniforms." In other sports you don't. Indeed, some teams have intentionally changed their jerseys in order to change their image—the Canucks, for example.
"They used to have blue uniforms," says Frank, now a postdoctoral fellow at the Human Interaction Laboratory at the University of California in San Francisco. "But the team was playing listlessly, so they consulted marketing psychologists. In 1978 they came back with these black uniforms with what looked like fluorescent orange and yellow on them." They didn't win any more games, but they did increase their penalty minutes [from 962 to 1,1341]." Despite contributing 130 minutes to that total, defenseman Harold Snepsts denies any change in his temperament, saying the only difference he noticed was that "we looked more like Halloween." Scary.
The best measure of meanness, Frank and Gilovich decided, is the number of penalty minutes or yards assessed. "Almost all hockey penalties charged are for aggressive acts," says Frank. "There's high-sticking, cross-checking, spearing, slashing, butt-ending and fighting." In football, "there are a lot of ineptitude penalties, but the big ones are generally for aggressive acts, too."
So Gilovich and Frank looked into the histories of the NFL and the NHL and tallied up the penalties that were meted out between 1970 and 1986. "As predicted," the authors wrote in their study, "teams with black uniforms in the NFL are uncommonly aggressive. In all but one of the last 17 years. I the five black-clad teams] were penalized more yards than one would expect...." The Raiders were at the top of the list, Pittsburgh came in third. Chicago and Cincinnati seventh and eighth, and New Orleans 12th. But all teams with black uniforms were penalized more than the average. In hockey the findings were similar. Philadelphia. Pittsburgh and Vancouver topped the penalty list. Boston was sixth and Chicago 10th.
Perhaps the most compelling finding concerned two hockey teams that had switched to black uniforms during the period the study covered—Pittsburgh in 1980 and Vancouver in 1978-79. The Penguins went from being the 14th most-penalized team (of 17) in the season before the change to black uniforms to seventh most-penalized in the first full season after changing colors—and the NHL had grown to 21 teams by then. The non-black-clad Canucks were ninth most-penalized in the NHL in 1977-78; the Canucks of '78-79 finished third in the same category.
Two possible explanations are that the aggressive acts of black-uniformed teams caused them to be penalized, or that the perception of aggression had the whistles blowing. Penalties come from referees, and referees can be biased. As Gilovich and Frank put it, "They may view any given action as more malevolent if it is performed by a player in a black uniform."
This prejudice is not lost on the players. Terry O'Reilly, coach of the Bruins and a frequent visitor to the penalty box during his own playing days for Boston, says, "I don't think the color of our uniforms has got anything to do with how we play, but it does have a lot to do with how we're perceived. Referees' judgments are based on emotions, and black uniforms may make players look a little more aggressive. That can sway the decision-making process."
One of the experiments that Gilovich and Frank devised to test the hunch that referees are biased against players wearing black involved two separate videos of two football plays. The action was staged as identically as possible in both tapes, but in one version the defensive team wore white, in the other it wore black. Twenty college and high school referees watched the "black" version of the video, and 20 watched the white version. Then, the referees were asked how likely they would be to penalize the defensive team, and "their impression of the teams' 'dirtiness.' "
Sure enough, "the referees were more inclined to penalize the defensive team if they saw the black version...than if they saw the white version." The researchers concluded: "Teams that wear black uniforms receive harsher treatment from the referees."
That prejudice, of course, doesn't mean that players wearing black uniforms play more aggressively, any more than a highway trooper's bias against red cars means that red cars speed more. But real aggression is a tricky thing to test. It's hard to put a black shirt on someone and then figure out if he has become meaner. Nonetheless, this, in effect, is what the researchers tried to do.
To cover up their real intentions, Gilovich and Frank told the subjects of another experiment that they were participating in a study on "the psychology of competition" and that they could choose which events they would compete in by picking five activities from a list of 12. The choice of games ranged from patently aggressive activities—such as dart-gun duels—to basically nonaggressive games such as shooting baskets. Once the subjects had made their choices, they were each given either black or white jerseys and split into two teams. Each team, while wearing the white or black uniforms, had to decide as a group what game it would play.
The two teams never did actually play, because by then the researchers already had the data they were after. The study found that the two groups were indistinguishable in their appetites for aggressive games before they put on the uniforms, but that there was a huge difference afterward. The team with the black shirts wanted to play more violent games. "If the wearing of a black uniform can have such an effect in the laboratory," Gilovich and Frank reasoned, "there is every reason to believe that it would have even stronger effects on the playing field (or rink)."
But how much credit do the the players themselves give their uniforms for increased aggressiveness? Former Bear Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus gives none. "It's too deep for me." he says. "All I know was that we wore dark in the hot weather, dark colors attract heat, and it was uncomfortable."
At the other end of the spectrum, the Bruins' O'Reilly waxes scientific on the subject. "Colors are important." he says. "They project an image. Fast-food joints use yellow and red signs because those colors are supposed to activate the salivary glands; cars sell better when they're jewel colors, like ruby-red and emerald-green; academics wear brown; and businessmen wear navy-blue or dark gray suits."
Likewise, a team wearing black, O'Reilly says, "gives the image of being formidable." So, in spite of the tendency of referees to penalize teams in black, he says, "we're not ready to switch to pink."
Of course, the quintessential bully team is the black-clad Raiders. "We were the most-penalized team for many years." says Ben Davidson, the former Raider defensive end who is remembered as much for fracturing Joe Na-math's cheekbone in 1967 as for his three Pro Bowl seasons. "It came to be kind of a joke. We used to put people on. We scared quarterbacks into thinking. Those people on the defensive line are crazy."
The Raider defensive backs enjoyed a similar, if sometimes undeserved, reputation. Hayes didn't even make the top five when this magazine surveyed players in 1985 to determine the "nastiest" players in the NFL; however, the Molester was right up there when the question "Who are the cockiest players?" was asked.
Did the Raiders' black uniforms contribute to the team's fearsome image? "Black does make a team look more sinister," says Davidson. And the Raider helmet has that little logo—a shield with a pirate face with a patch over the eye. "That was not the Hathaway shirt man," says Davidson.
Yet, Davidson says, the black uniform was just "part of the package." The people in control of the Raiders—particularly managing general partner Al Davis—seemed to seek out an aggressive outlaw image. "The Raiders weren't exactly a Boy Scout team," says Davidson. But do clothes make the man. Ben? "If black jerseys could do all that." he says, "they would wear them in the executive suites."
The players might believe that black uniforms only make them seem more aggressive, yet none was willing to discount color as a force in his game. Black, almost everyone seems to agree, makes a team formidable. And that might be the essence of it all. Formidability—not in the fan's eyes nor even in the referee's eyes, but in the eyes of the opposition. That is the real psychological power of the black uniform. It intimidates.
As Schultz, the forward who was penalized an astounding 1,386 minutes while with the Flyers from 1972 to 1976, puts it: "Black is more macho. If a big white car pulls up and a big black car pulls up, you'll be more aware of who is getting out of the black one."
The Hammer knows. After leaving Philadelphia, Schultz played for the Kings. That was in the Kings' pre-black livery days. Schultz says, "Everything was purple and yellow [actually it was Forum blue and gold). That uniform didn't impress me." Why. Hammer? "Blood shows up too much in yellow sweaters, and people might think it's your own."
Schultz has hit on an important point: A team cannot look like a bunch of wimps. The perception of aggression created by wearing black might be a mixed blessing because of the penalty calls it can prompt, but the perception of weakness in sports is as bad as real weakness. Perhaps that is the real reason the Kings switched to black this season. Purple and gold might be the colors of royalty, which is fine for a team named the Kings, but they are also the colors of bruises, which is not such a great image to present in the NHL.
Vachon is not admitting to anything. "We were just changing our colors," he says innocently. "There was nothing special behind it." Why black? "We just liked the color. Black is always a nice color."
And hockey is a nice, gentle game.