Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Annals of Junk Science I

When the Redskins play the Cardinals do you get a tie?
May 19, 2005

Take two sports teams or athletes, evenly matched. Who will win? Statistically, the team wearing red. You didn't know that. Researchers in England published just such a finding in Nature, which many reporters found irresistible, but should not have. The two, sports psychologists, did a study during the 2004 Olympics in Athens, using athletes in four sports: boxing, tae kwon do, Greco-Roman wrestling and freestyle wrestling. They assigned half of the athletes red uniforms and half blue. Those wearing red won 55% of the time across all sports. In matches where they were evenly matched, the red uniform wearer beat the blue 60%. [One hopes they did not get a government grant for this]. It apparently works to their satisfaction in team sports as well. Looking at Euro 2004 soccer (football to some of you), teams that had two color uniforms did better when wearing the red suits than they did wearing the alternatives.

Being psychologists, they had an explanation, or at least a wild guess. Red is the color of anger, so maybe the color intimidated opponents. Maybe wearing red increases testosterone production. [I'm not making this up]. It works in the animal kingdom, they reported. When researchers put red color bands on the legs of male birds, the birds got laid more often than they did before the bands. Human military uniforms often have red in them. Maybe, then again, it's just cultural, with red being the color of emperors.

Well, OK, it works for Olympic sports and soccer. Let's do our own research. Baseball. Do teams wearing red do better than teams not wearing red? (Blue is the most common color in Major League uniforms, incidentally). Because of the enormous number of games teams played, I don't have the beginning of enough time to go through them all, so let's leave it to the World Series, the championship.

Wearing red would, on the face of it have nothing to do with success over the years, e.g. the New York Yankees, the best team in history, wears navy blue and white. The Los Angeles (nee Brooklyn) Dodgers wear Dodger Blue, while the Boston Red Sox won their first championship since the early part of the last century, and the Chicago Cubs (blue and red) haven't even done that.

Last year, those Red Sox played the even redder St. Louis Cardinals and the team wearing red won. In 2003, the Miami Marlins beat the Yankees and there was no red in sight. The year before, the black-and-orange San Francisco Giants lost to the Anaheim (nee Los Angeles) Angels, and the Angels indeed wore red and still lost. The year before that, the Arizona Diamond backs (no red) beat the Yankees, which means teams with red in their uniforms weren't helped very much; they all were eliminated. Then there was 2000, when the Yankees beat the red-less New York Mets (ditto), and before that the Braves (a little red) lost to the Yankees (ditto again), and the year before that the Yankees beat the un-red San Diego Padres.

In fact, you'd have to go back to 1990 to find another team in red winning the Series, fittingly enough, the Cincinnati Reds, over the green and white Oakland Athletics. There were the Cardinals again in 87, but they lost to Minnesota, which wears blue and yellow. In 85, the Cardinals lost to the Kansas City Royals (as in blue) and back in 83, the all-red Philadelphia Phillies lost to the Baltimore Orioles (black and orange). I could go on, but I don't have a government grant.

I did, for many years, subscribe to the theory that no sporting team wearing purple could be worth a damn, but now that I live in Baltimore and the NFL Ravens show up in that atrocious color, I keep my mouth shut.

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