In October, Zimmer’s Vikings wore all-white uniforms for the first time since 2015. Following the 19-13 Monday night win, Zimmer commented on the decision to deviate from his normal purple pants. He said that his mentor, Bill Parcells, thought the change could give them an edge:
“He said, ‘I really loved your uniforms the other night.’ I said, ‘Why coach?’ He said, well, when he was a young coach they told him if you wear all-white at night and you’re on the road, that your offense can see the uniforms better and you can perform better. I thought that was kind of interesting, but those are some of the things he talks about.”
But is that truly an edge? Football is a game that requires lightning-fast mental processing, so any edge that eases mental strain could be worth it. Should the Vikings keep wearing their all-whites? We can answer this with neurology.
First, let’s examine the claim that all-white uniforms are easier to see at night. During night games, stadiums kick on their lights to high gear and do so from all directions. The same effect would exist in an artificially lit dome, where the Vikings will play their final two regular-season games (in New Orleans and Detroit).
Natural sunlight, like what they’ll likely see in Tampa, casts more shadows. Human brains are pretty well-equipped to deal with this. You may have seen this optical illusion. Squares A and B are the exact same shade of gray, even though they don’t look like it. One is in shadow and one is in light, and our brains are hard-wired to adjust for that so we can properly perceive the pattern. That ability is called color constancy.
This ability happens naturally, but it does add a step to visual processing. If it’s not too hot out, the darkest permutation of uniforms could be helpful to obscure shadows, and therefore reduce the mental energy necessary to identify which color is which. All-white, or white with purple pants would increase color complexity, and therefore complicate visual processing.
Color and memory have strong associations as well that can help us adjust for differently lit circumstances. This picture of strawberries is entirely blue-tinted. There isn’t a pixel of red in the image. But since we know strawberries to be red, our brain automatically adjusts. You can probably even guess that the table is made of light wood, despite being harshly color-shifted.
When the colors no longer represent the associated images, the memory aid no longer works. MIT did a study on this where they tested students using normal colors and randomly re-colored memory aids. The random group performed much worse. So if a team that normally wears blue suddenly starts wearing orange, it could disrupt some memory processing. That is one possible explanation for the Vikings’ struggles against alternate uniforms (though the sample is far too small to make any academic declarations).
There is one final neurological consideration to a uniform color choice: camouflage. There is green grass and white paint on the field. The brain’s visual processing cortex uses edges and outlines to differentiate objects. If those edges are less defined, it takes more mental energy to make sense of it. The more different you look from the backdrop, the easier you are to pick out. All-white uniforms with crisscrossing white lines behind them could make it slightly harder to process visual information.
These are all small considerations, but football is a game of inches. If you can slow down or speed up the mental processing of a quarterback such that it takes an extra hundredth of a second to make a throw, it could be the difference between a completion or incompletion. But who actually gets the advantage? After all, if the Vikings wore camouflaged uniforms to confuse Tom Brady, it’d confuse Kirk Cousins just as much. That’s where game theory comes in.
Each game is its own challenge. Brady, a 20-year veteran, might be more well-equipped to parse out mental challenges than Cousins. So in this week’s game, it may be wise to simplify the Vikings’ uniform choice and reduce visual processing time. There is an argument to wear purple pants to increase contrast with the white lines of the field and the classic Buccaneers home uniform. Against Mitchell Trubisky next week, adding entropy could be advantageous. The last two games in domes could see the Vikings wearing all-white uniform combos, since dome lighting emulates night lighting, and that will give Cousins that much more clarity.
These are all minuscule advantages that aren’t worth nearly as much thought as we’ve put in here. But in a world where player diets are fine-tuned, tracking chips measure exact speeds and every tiny advantage is relentlessly pursued, any reason to choose one uniform over another is reason enough.