Uni Watch: How the zebra got its stripes.

The stadium scene.
March 10 2004 3:35 PM

Uni Watch

How the zebra got its stripes.

Don't expect these zebras to change their stripes
Don't expect these zebras to change their stripes

So this zebra walks into a bar—no, really! It was on a recent Saturday afternoon at Butler's, a fine New York City watering hole, when a gent walked in wearing a referee's jersey, complete with the familiar black-and-white stripe pattern. That got Uni Watch thinking: Why do officials in so many sports wear zebra stripes? And how did the striped design get started, anyway?

Those questions prompted a disinterested shrug from the fellow at Butler's, but subsequent inquiries were more successful. According to an article from the archives of the conceptually brilliant Referee magazine, the striped design was the brainchild of one Lloyd Olds, a longtime high-school and college sports official from Michigan. The impetus for the idea came in 1920, when he was working a college football game while wearing a white shirt, which was customary at the time for officials in most sports. The visiting team wore white as well. At one point, the quarterback mistakenly handed off the ball to Olds. "Of course I dropped it," he later recalled, "and, thank goodness, he recovered same."

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Olds figured this white-on-white confusion could be avoided if officials wore stripes. So he had a friend in the sporting goods biz create a prototype, 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 striped look eventually caught on in the professional ranks as well, although specifics are a bit fuzzy—the assorted pro leagues and halls of fame have surprisingly little data on what their officials have worn over the years. Here's what Uni Watch has managed to cobble together:

Football: NFL officials originally wore white knickers, white dress shirts, black bow ties, black stockings, and white hats that looked like a cross between a beret and a British walking cap. Internet-linkable photos from this era have proved elusive, but the caps were briefly revived during the NFL's 1994 throwback games, as can be seen here and here. In 1941 the league switched to baseball caps and, interestingly, a color-coded system of vertically striped jerseys: The referee's stripes were black and white while the head linesman wore red and white, the umpire wore orange and white, and the field judge donned green and white. Everyone went to the standard black-white design in 1945, the same year officials began wearing uniform numbers, and the league's basic officiating uni has remained relatively constant since then.

Hockey: In the NHL's early days, refs and linesmen wore beige sweaters, much like those worn by officials in this season's throwback games. What the throwback look omits, however, is that these sweaters were originally worn over white dress shirts and black neckties (the latter of which were sometimes striped). Information from the NHL Officials Association suggests that the league briefly switched to orange sweaters (the mind fairly boggles) before opting for the basic zebra design in the early 1950s. This look has held fairly steady since then, with one slight tweak: Officials took the ice for the 1999-2000 All-Star Game wearing solid-black sleeve undersides, a modification that proved so popular that the league permanently adopted it the following season.

Basketball: The NBA has never fully embraced the zebra look, presumably because there's little chance of a normal-statured guy wearing a T-shirt and trousers being mistaken for a pituitary freak in a tank top and shorts. Early NBA refs wore long-sleeved gray pullovers with wide-lapelled blue collars. The league went to black-and-white striping in the early 1950s, but only temporarily—by 1971 refs were wearing short-sleeved gray shirts similar to those they wear now (but without that horrific blue side piping, which someone really needs to do something about, like, yesterday). Uni Watch suggests that the league might want to revisit the zebra motif since NBA refs—many of whom look like Humpty Dumpty compared to the towering players—are the officials most in need of the lengthening, slimming effect that vertical stripes provide.

Rival leagues: Since most upstart leagues have been founded during the era of color TV, it's not surprising that many of them have tried to jazz up the zebra look. Officials in the American Football League, for example, wore orange-and-white striped jerseys with black cuffs and collars. Their counterparts in the American Basketball Association wore red and white with blue cuffs and collars (on display toward the bottom of this page), a color scheme that was also worn by officials in the short-lived World Hockey Association. Officiating crews in the even shorter-lived World Football League wore an odd design featuring blue-and-gold stripes during their first season (see additional pics here), but by their second and final year, they'd reverted to basic black and white. Perhaps learning from this example, the USFL and XFL dressed their officials in standard zebra stripes as well.

The zebra look has infiltrated many other sports, including lacrosse, wrestling, and on at least one notable if atypical occasion, boxing. The big exception, of course, is baseball, where umpiring attire has generally been rooted in prevailing menswear fashions. But the zebra phenomenon has nonetheless influenced Major League Baseball: In 2001, when umpires' shirts and jackets switched from navy to black with white trim, an MLB spokesman explained: "We wanted the rest of the officiating world to know that we were part of that fraternity. Black and white is kind of the universal symbol." (That reasoning has apparently been revised because blue-suited umps will be making a comeback this season—further details in Uni Watch's upcoming 2004 baseball preview column.)

As for Lloyd Olds, now deceased, he'd no doubt be astonished by the ubiquity his simple design has achieved. Perhaps even more amazing, Olds unwittingly provided the dress code for one of the nation's largest retailers: If not for his innovation, Foot Locker shoe salesmen might be wearing white shirts and bow ties.

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