Why do NFL referees wear stripes?

The striped crew used to wear their Sunday best on Sundays — but they were sometimes mistaken for players, so a change was needed.
Posted at 5:40 PM, Feb 13, 2023

Zebras, piano keys, barcodes and referees are all members of the black and white stripe fraternity. But why did refs end up in this group? 

Paul Lukas is the editor and founder of "Uni Watch," a site that tracks jersey trends in sports.

"The whole idea of refs wearing stripes started was like almost 100 years ago when in many sports it was common for referees or officials to dress formally," Lukas said.

That’s right — the striped crew used to wear their Sunday best on Sundays, sporting white dress shirts, knickers and black bowties. But their get-up often caused some color confusion on the field.

"The problem, of course, is that you also had a lot of players wearing white on the field. And so there were situations when a player would mistake one of the game officials for a teammate," Lukas said. 

That’s what happened to referee Lloyd Olds during a 1920 college football contest. So he had a friend design a shirt to differentiate him from players — giving birth to the black and white striped uniform. The look spread across the college and high school officiating ranks.

The NFL eventually adopted a striped officiating uniform for the 1941 season. The head referees wore black and white stripes, but other officials wore stripes that were red and white, orange and white or green and white. 

By 1947 the league did away with all the different colors and decided to keep all its officials uniform in black and white. 

Coaches and athletes in hockey, lacrosse and college basketball also get to yell at officials sporting the zebra stripes.

And the monochromatic look made it into the ring during the iconic 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" fight between Muhammad Ali and George Forman. But today, boxing officials, baseball umpires, soccer and NBA refs opt for a non-striped look. 

You likely won’t see the NFL lose its stripes anytime soon. 

"At this point, it's kind of embedded in the visual foundation of the game. You know, if you had NFL refs out there wearing anything other than zebra stripes, I think there'd be a bit of a fan revolt. Like people would say like, that just doesn't look like the NFL," Lukas said. 

While some disgruntled fans might argue the refs are sometimes blind, those iconic stripes ensure they’ll never be invisible.

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