Men in Black Spend More Time in Hockey's Penalty Box

A look at 25 NHL seasons finds players wearing black jerseys receive more penalty minutes than those wearing white.
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In an old cinematic Western, you can tell the good guys from the bad by the color of their respective hats. If the referees’ judgment can be trusted, it appears you can make a similar snap judgment at a hockey game.

The only difference is, on the ice rink, the tell-tale garments are the players’ jerseys.

Analyzing penalty-minute data from the last 25 National Hockey League seasons, a trio of researchers led by University of Florida psychologist Gregory Webster found a fascinating pattern. In a paper posted online just as the NHL’s preseason gets underway, they found a correlation between aggressive play (as determined by referees) and the colors of the players’ jerseys.

“When teams wore black jerseys, they were penalized more than when they did not,” they write in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. “When teams switched to wearing colored jerseys at home games, they were penalized more than when they wore white jerseys at home games.

“Collectively, these quasi-experimental findings suggest that black jerseys are associated with more aggression, and that white jerseys are associated with less.”

The researchers, whose work contradicts the conclusions of an earlier study, collected data on jersey color and penalty infraction minutes for all NHL teams from 1984-85 to the 2009-10 season. They report 43 percent of teams wore a black or mostly-black jersey for away games during at least part of this period.

Penalty minutes are assigned by referees and depend upon the seriousness of the rule that has been broken. Players are forced to sit out for two minutes for such infractions as elbowing or tripping an opponent, and five minutes for fighting or charging a member of the other team. For more serious violations, they can be barred from the remainder of the game, as well as the entirety of the next game.

“On average, the 30 teams were significantly more aggressive during seasons in which they wore black jerseys,” the researchers report. “The average team was assessed more [penalty infraction minutes] when they wore black jerseys vs. when they wore other colored jerseys.”

Looking further into the data, they found the difference was due to an increase in serious rather than minor infractions. They also found increased aggressiveness did not result in a team scoring more goals.

A second, more narrowly focused study partially confirmed these findings. It compared penalties assessed during the 2000-01, 2001-02 and 2002-03 seasons to those assessed from 2003-04 to 2009–10. Between the 2002–03 and 2003–04 seasons, the NHL performed a league-wide experiment, where all 30 teams switched from wearing white to colored uniforms during home games.
The researchers found that, judging by penalty minutes assessed by referees, “teams were significantly more aggressive at home games after they switched to wearing colored jerseys.”

In this much smaller data set, there were no significant differences in penalty minutes between home-ice players wearing black versus those clad in red or blue. But once again, wearing white was associated with fewer minutes spent in the penalty box.

These findings raise a lot of questions. Do players really behave differently when they put on a different color uniform? Do their opponents react to them differently? Or do the referees judge them less harshly when they’re clad in white?

Many researchers studying racism have found a mental link between the color black and feelings of negativity. It’s certainly possible that referees bring this unconscious association with them to the rink and are thus quicker to penalize players wearing black.

Then again, perhaps putting on a black uniform triggers a bad-guy attitude on the part of the player, who genuinely becomes more aggressive. At this point, it’s impossible to say.

“We believe both factors may contribute to our findings,” Webster and his colleagues write. “Whether the color-aggression effects are due to the uniform wearer, the opposing player, the referee, or all three, remains an open question.”

And an interesting one to ruminate on while you’re sitting in the penalty box.

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