Drawing the Foul: The Story Behind the Design of the Iconic Striped Referee Uniform

A referee holding a basketball ball in front of an audience, showcasing the iconic striped referee uniform design.

You see them in every basketball game. They spend their careers running up and down the court, throwing up hand signals and indicating decisions to both players and spectators.

They are the referees.

And without them, the sport of basketball (and any other sport) would descend into chaos. But as you watch them in their roles as overseers of the game, you may find yourself asking a simple question – what’s the story behind the iconic striped uniforms and why don’t basketball officials wear them today?

The Psychology Behind Stripes

The commonly accepted reason for referees wearing zebra-like stripes is simple – to distinguish themselves from the teams on the court. That reasoning stems from football, rather than basketball, and the story of a man named Lloyd Olds.

A referee hailing from Michigan, Olds usually wore a solid white shirt to officiate games. He chose that color for its neutrality – more on that soon – but a football game he oversaw in 1920 revealed why wearing just white was a mistake. In that match, the visiting team was also wearing white and, following that team’s quarterback mistakenly trying to hand the football off to Lloyds, he saw that he needed to make a change to his uniform.

Stripes were his solution.

Olds asked a friend to make a black and white striped shirt, which he wore for the first time during the 1921 Michigan State Basketball Championships (Olds was clearly a multi-talented referee), and stripes eventually became the standard across almost all sports.

But why have they stuck around?

It likely has something to do with black and white – or the combination of the two – being seen as neutral colors. That color scheme perfectly complements the role the referee plays as a neutral observer who exists solely to implement the rules of the game. But that neutrality may also serve to have a calming effect on players in the heat of the moment.

Think about it like this – in a game of basketball, the team wearing the jerseys that don’t match yours is the “enemy.” Having a referee who wore similar colors to your opponents would not only create confusion but could also lead to you regarding them as the “enemy” along with the other team. So, combining black and white maintains that idea of neutrality. And in doing so, the colors make it far easier for refs to oversee their games.

How Stripes Have Evolved Over the Years

Despite the ubiquitous nature of black and white stripes in refereeing today, the color scheme didn’t take off as soon as Lloyd Olds strode out onto the Michigan court in 1921. The professional leagues took a long time to adopt the colors.

The NFL was the first, with black and white stripes becoming standard referee attire in 1945. The NHL was a little slower, adopting the stripes in 1950 as a replacement for the admittedly neutral – to the point of being unremarkable – beige sweaters its officials previously wore.

But the NBA has a slightly more fractured relationship with stripes. While it adopted the black and white in the 1950s, hot off the heels of the NHL, they didn’t stick around. With 1971 came a new evolution in NBA referee shirts – and one that has carried through to today – as the stripes were replaced with a muted gray. NCAA basketball refs can choose between a slightly altered striped shirt or a grey shirt, both with black shoulders.

But take a closer look at a modern NBA ref’s jersey and you’ll still see a hint of stripes buried in the gray. And that, combined with the black used for shorts and socks, shows that the spirit of neutrality that black and white stripes represent – if not the specific design – is still alive and well in basketball.

The Influence of the Striped Shirt

Even though the NBA strayed away from the black and white stripes, the influence of this classic design is still around for all to see. Thin white lines are still present on the gray shirts officials wear in basketball, for instance, and black and white stripes are still worn in the NFL, NHL, NCAA, and, occasionally, professional wrestling.

That influence spreads even further.

Watch any movie about sports and you’ll almost always see the classic stripes in action. Some people even wear black and white stripes to dress up as referees for Halloween. Seeing that, it’s clear that Lloyd Old’s simple solution to a common on-field problem has permeated modern culture to the point where if you see a striped uniform, you immediately think “referee.”

Stripes Are Here to Stay

Stripes are here to stay, and even NBA references the classic design. And the reason is simple – it’s a timeless and effective design that achieves its goal of neutrality. And “timeless” is the perfect word to describe Hoop Dream Studios and our work with basketball hoops and backboards.We understand the power of design, just as Lloyd Olds did, and we embue every hoop we create with our unique vision of the art of basketball. Check out our collection of hoops today or get in touch to order a customized hoop designed just for you.