There are certain things we've come to expect in the world of sports. From a sartorial standpoint, the usage of black-and-white stripes has become synonymous with the position of 'referee.' We explore how and why the pattern has become the baseline look for authoritative control.
A common colloquialism used to describe a referee in a variety of sports is "zebra" because of the obvious connections between the man/woman in charge of the gameplay and the hoofed creature whose stripes are unique to each individual animal. While the styles of referee uniforms have evolved over the years, major American sports leagues like the NHL and NFL continue to use the classic, striped pattern to differentiate the officials from the players (despite the obvious size and strength attributes). As we've learned in the past, each "common practice/occurrence" we deem as the accepted norm stems from curious origins - and the referees' stripe-laden uniform is no different.
In the early days of football, referees wore white, dress shirts, bow ties and beret-style hats to add an air of authoritative control to competition. White signaled purity and an unbiased attitude - which is what one hopes they're getting when the fate of a game boils down to the judgement of one/a few people. As The New York Times noted, "The trouble was that some teams also dressed in white, including a group of Arizona football players. In 1920, a quarterback passed a ball to a referee named Lloyd Olds, after mistaking his white shirt for a team uniform. The mix-up so bothered Olds, [so] he appealed to a friend — George Moe, proprietor of a sporting goods store — to make an eye-catching shirt that would set him apart from the players."
According to Slate, "Olds figured this white-on-white confusion could be avoided if officials wore stripes - which he first wore while working the 1921 Michigan state high-school basketball championships. As Olds continued to wear stripes while officiating in several different sports, the idea spread rapidly throughout the world of high-school and collegiate athletics."
The pro leagues began the slow transition soon after. By 1945, the NFL went to the standard black-white design - the same year officials began wearing uniform numbers, the NHL's refs and linesmen ditched their beige sweaters for stripes by 1950. The NBA temporarily went to black-and-white striping in the early 1950s, but by 1971 they were wearing short-sleeved gray shirts similar to those they wear now.
Lloyd Olds went on to teach at Eastern Michigan University from 1921 to 1963 where he was the track coach and director of the intramural program - adopting the philosophy, "Athletics for Everyone.” He passed away on December 2, 1982 at the age of 90. After learning of Olds' death Eugene Beatty, a former student, said, “When you live to be 90 years old and do as many things as Lloyd Olds did, well, you just thank God. Prior to passing, Olds once remarked on what he thought to be his own anonymity: 'If I had been a celebrity like Arnold Palmer, I might have gotten my name on the shirt.'”