Who or what is the real Kingmaker? Wayne Gretzky or the color black? We'll never know, because the Los Angeles Kings have cavalierly let a scientific opportunity slide right by them. By changing the color of their uniforms in the same season they acquired Gretzky, the NHL's eight-time MVP, the Kings ruined what could have been the definitive study of the impact of black uniforms on the temper of a team.
Rogie Vachon, general manager of the Kings, admits he failed science in favor of an opportunity to improve the team, which last season finished 18th in the overall standings. This year L.A. had the fourth-best record in the NHL. "We've changed the face of our team so much this year," he says, that it's hard to tell what's due to color changes and what's due to personnel changes. "If we had the same players, it would be easier to find out."
Well, thank goodness there are more diligent individuals to study the color black. In a study published in 1988 by the American Psychological Association that was ominously entitled The Dark Side of Self and Social Perception: Black Uniforms and Aggression in Professional Sports, researchers Tom Gilovich and Mark G. Frank made a formal investigation of black uniforms. Gilovich, an associate professor of psychology at Cornell, and Frank, who was a doctoral student at the school when the study was undertaken, asked: Can a peaceful team suddenly turn tough by changing to black uniforms?
Sports legend points to an affirmative. Some of the most notorious players ever—for instance, Lester (the Molester) Hayes and Jack (the Assassin) Tatum of the Oakland/ L.A. Raiders and Dave (the Hammer) Schultz of the Philadelphia Flyers have been outfitted in black (the study defined black-clad as "if a team's base jersey color was black, or if its pants, helmet, and trim were black").
The Assassin. The Molester. The Hammer. If that lineup of black-clad baddies doesn't tell you something, just compare the uniforms of professional hockey and football, sports with a reputation for aggressiveness, with the basic white of such supposedly gentle sports as basketball or baseball.
In the NBA only two teams wear predominantly black (the Portland Trail Blazers and the San Antonio Spurs), and in baseball only two teams qualified under the study's criteria (the Pittsburgh Pirates and the San Francisco Giants). But nearly a third of the teams in the NHL wear black—the Vancouver Canucks, the Flyers, the Boston Bruins, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Chicago Blackhawks and, as of this season, the Kings, who had their best regular-season finish in eight years. Nearly 20% of NFL teams wear black—the Raiders, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Cincinnati Bengals, the New Orleans Saints and the Chicago Bears. (The Bears actually wear dark blue, but even John Madden has mistaken it for black.)
Do you think all those football and hockey teams wear black because it doesn't show dirt? Think again. "In sports where intimidation is important," says Gilovich, "you get teams wearing black uniforms." In other sports you don't. Indeed, some teams have intentionally changed their jerseys in order to change their image—the Canucks, for example.
"They used to have blue uniforms," says Frank, now a postdoctoral fellow at the Human Interaction Laboratory at the University of California in San Francisco. "But the team was playing listlessly, so they consulted marketing psychologists. In 1978 they came back with these black uniforms with what looked like fluorescent orange and yellow on them." They didn't win any more games, but they did increase their penalty minutes [from 962 to 1,1341]." Despite contributing 130 minutes to that total, defenseman Harold Snepsts denies any change in his temperament, saying the only difference he noticed was that "we looked more like Halloween." Scary.
The best measure of meanness, Frank and Gilovich decided, is the number of penalty minutes or yards assessed. "Almost all hockey penalties charged are for aggressive acts," says Frank. "There's high-sticking, cross-checking, spearing, slashing, butt-ending and fighting." In football, "there are a lot of ineptitude penalties, but the big ones are generally for aggressive acts, too."
So Gilovich and Frank looked into the histories of the NFL and the NHL and tallied up the penalties that were meted out between 1970 and 1986. "As predicted," the authors wrote in their study, "teams with black uniforms in the NFL are uncommonly aggressive. In all but one of the last 17 years. I the five black-clad teams] were penalized more yards than one would expect...." The Raiders were at the top of the list, Pittsburgh came in third. Chicago and Cincinnati seventh and eighth, and New Orleans 12th. But all teams with black uniforms were penalized more than the average. In hockey the findings were similar. Philadelphia. Pittsburgh and Vancouver topped the penalty list. Boston was sixth and Chicago 10th.