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New to watching football and see something that seriously arouses your curiosity? Well, among the many inquiries our readers submit, a question oft-repeated is about NFL players wearing eye black ~ those black smudges (mostly) spread right under a player’s eyes.
The reasons NFL players wear eyeblack are to either reduce glare from the sun or stadium lights; or to intimidate opponents. Or a combination of both.
It is difficult to find a study that shows, conclusively, that eye black actually reduces glare. At least a single study determined that eye grease or strips can help the eyes separate dark from light, which is helpful for visual clarity.
What is also called eye grease, or glare strips, also are used by players in baseball, softball, and lacrosse.
Ask athletes themselves why they wear it, and the answer most likely will fall into the style category. Players like how it looks, whether that means to impress, or to intimidate.
Some players wear eye black to show that they mean business, or are not messing around. Groups of players on a team might wear matching eye black strips or styles, to show camaraderie. This is often the case with defensive units in football.
Originally it was known as eye grease, because that’s pretty much what it was: a dark thick grimy substance that would best stick to the skin under the eyes no matter how much sweat poured out of a player.
Early eye black is said to have come from burnt cork. Later the grease was manufactured into tubes for purchase, and this substance was very tar-like. It stuck around for most of the games, sure, but sometimes it also was not easy to take off after contests.
The practice of wearing eye black in football and other sports began nearly a century ago, but did not begin to pick up in popularity until games were televised consistently, or in the 1960s. Basically use of eye black grew with the explosion in sports popularity brought on by mass media coverage.
From there it seems each decade eye black grew in popularity all the way to a point where it is regulated in some sports.
How Eye Black is Supposed to Work
Dark strips beneath the eyes are supposed to absorb light rather than deflect it, which naked skin mostly does. By absorbing those rays, and not bouncing them away, the strips are supposed to reduce the chance that a light ray will impede vision during play.
A problem with this is the location. While the cheeks at their top are slightly slanted inward toward the eyes, for the most part the cheek skin faces forward, meaning any rays deflected go straight and away from the face ~ and no upward into the eyes.
Although, with modern glare strips, it is easier for today’s players to get the strips closer to the eyes compared with the old real-grease days. This may improve the chances for the strips to actually keep glare from the eyes. But none of this has been proven.
Whether or not this light absorption theory works for football has not been determined conclusively. (See more below on eye black studies).
Believe it or not, black eye grease started surfacing in sports as early as the 1930s! Then, of all players, Babe Ruth is said to have used eye black to reduce glare from the sun on bright clear days.
For football, it is pretty well established that fullback Andy Farkas of the Washington Redskins is seen in eye black in photos dating back to 1942. This is the type of eye black they say came from burning cork.
However, the practice was not widely utilized, both then and today. We began to see more eye black on players on television in the 1970s, when team sport athletes began to personalize their look a la the stylish (and dominating) Oakland A’s during that period.
Prior to the flamboyant A’s and their long hair and mustaches, most pro athletes were quite subdued, and stuck to with team consistency when it came to uniforms and personal style.
This was changed in the 1970s by the A’s, along with other bold franchises. Think about those ‘70s uniforms: the deep powder blue road unis of the Philadelphia Phillies and Kansas City Royals, the mix-and-match black and yellow threads of the Pittsburgh Pirates, or the ultra-bright home orange of the late ‘70s “Orange Crush” Denver Broncos, among others.
By the 1980s, some football players would take the grease a step further, and smear it to other parts of the face and not just the upper cheeks ~ to make it appear like war paint one might see on American Indian warriors.
Some NFL players like John Randle would use a lot more of the grease than just for a strip. He actually used the black around the eyes and well down the cheek to the jawlike, making for a couple of fang-like upside-down triangles.
Pay close attention today and you might see designs on the faces of NFL players created with the eye grease, everything from vertical stripes across the entire face, to circles or other shapes. Many football players surround the eyes with black to make their ferocious-looking eyeballs stand out and further intimidate others.
Eventually, marketers got involved and began pushing the adhesive, temporary strips we still see today. The first batches we saw were black to imitate the grease, but not soon after manufacturers started producing strips in team colors, and designs.
It reached a point in the 1990s where players might order strips with a message on them, despite the small space the strips offered. The concept was to have the message displayed on close-up photos or videos of the player, in football usually with the helmet off on the sideline.
The messages practice became so widespread in the beginning of the new century that the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) in April 2010 banned “any symbols or messages on their eye black starting in the 2010 season.”
Today, eye glare strips today are widely available online in a great variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.
Alternatives to Eye Black in Football
There are other ways for players to meet their objectives for using eye black, whether it’s to reduce glare or to look stylish. They include:
- Glare-reduction strips. Some of the strips you find on the market are very specially designed to reduce glare. Look closely at products if you choose to buy something to keep glare from interfering with view.
- Petroleum jelly. Some players have turned to simple Vaseline, or another brand of petroleum jelly.
- Small towels. Other players keep it super simple by carrying a small towel somewhere on their uniform, to enable face-wiping to prevent buildup of sweat on the face which is the cause of the problem in the first place.
- Flip-shades. Mainly for outdoor use, these are sunglasses where the lenses are hinged, so they can begin in an up position (for baseball players right under the bill of the cap), to be flipped downward for balls struck or thrown very high into the air.
- UV sunglasses. You’ve probably seen the clear or yellowish glasses some players wear, and wonder, what’s the point? In football, besides protecting the eyes from finger eye pokes, some players use modern sunglasses made of high-tech materials (such as nanotechnology) that block the harmful rays of the sun without the tint.
Whether or not eye black is effective for its most-stated purpose ~ to reduce glare ~ remains a debate point to this day despite efforts by universities and researchers to prove it 1 way or another.
There are 3 studies in particular that are most-referenced regarding this subject:
This study by Patricia Pahk and Brian DeBroff tested if black eye grease provided anti-glare benefits. Study participants were divided into persons who wore eye black, those who wore anti-glare stickers instead, and subjects who wore only petroleum jelly (more on that below).
Then their vision was tested via an eye chart, while exposed to sunlight. The conclusion was that eye black did reduce sun glare and improved the eyes’ sensitivity to contrast; while the stickers and petroleum jelly did not work.
However, the study has been criticized for bias, because subjects always knew which tool they had on their face. Additionally there were challenges about how the eye charts were repeated.
This study by Benjamin Powers at the University of New Hampshire sought to improve on the methodology used by DeBroff and Pahk. Interestingly, this study determined eye black could reduce sun glare for women, and for those whose eye color was different than blue.
The big challenge to this study was the significance of the statistics. The sample size and numbers, some felt, were just not large enough to support the conclusions. Once again, study subjects knew which substance was on their face during tests, among other concerns.
For an episode of the television show “MythBusters,” the hosts again challenged whether eye black reduces glare through testing. This is the study that determined that eye black does, indeed, improve the ability of athletes to tell the difference between light and dark.
This is said to be beneficial for the eyes to track objects that are in motion, in a sunny situation. This study did not determine that eye black eliminates glare.
Aside from Randle, Tebow, and Bush noted above, here are some football players past and present who choose to use eye black during play:
- Tom Brady
- Drew Brees
- Ray Lewis
- Mark Sanchez
- Kevin Gogan
- Chris Hovan
- Jeff George
- Chris Long
How Eye Black Sticker Messages Took Off
It was popularized mostly from former University of Southern California running back Reggie Bush (who honored his hometown on the strips by showing the area code number). Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow was known to show off Bible verses. Basically, the biggest of college football stars drove their popularity, and ultimate banning by the NCAA.
Perhaps in the original, thick-grease composition, maybe for some people. But today’s mass-produced eye grease must meet federal safety requirements before reaching market, and we have yet to see reports of problems with buyers’ skin.
That is not to say other greases used for glare reduction are all safe for the skin. If you have concerns about your skin and still want to use eye black, perhaps stick with the adhesive temporary strips.
See above. It is highly doubtful that manufacturers of commercial eye black for athletes would include anything remotely toxic in the ingredients, mainly because the area they are intended for use is very close to the eyes, and also on sensitive facial skin.
Think about it now: professional athletes are paid millions of dollars to play a game that depends greatly on the ability to see. Would they gamble their eyesight with any product?
If you discover a health problem arising from use of eye black or eye grease, please let us know!
Old-time thick grease eye black did have a tendency to stain jerseys. How badly depends on the material of the uniform item. However, more modern tubes of eye black are more designed to avoid that. Additionally, a good portion of eye-blacking now is done via the adhesive, temporary, removable strips.
To look different; as a special hidden message to a special person or group; or because an adhesive strip fell off.
Are NFL players allowed to wear jewelry during games?
A: Yes, NFL players can wear jewelry during games. However, they are prohibited from wearing “hard objects” that might pose a risk to opponents.