For a while, the NFL utilized an all-white ball before switching to a white ball with black stripes for enhanced visibility during night games. Because the paint used for the stripes made the ball slippery, the NFL finally removed them entirely. They are back now, but only on special edition balls that are not available to the public.
The black stripe on the ball is there to help players identify their team by touch when passing it out of the huddle. Without being able to see the color of the ball, a passer would have to look at the ground or use another object for reference. This could cause confusion as to which player has the ball and potentially lead to a fumbled exchange if they aren't careful.
There have been attempts over time to bring back the all-white ball, such as by former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, but they never caught on with teams or fans. The current design with black stripes has been in place since 2008 when the regular season started following the conclusion of the 2007 season.
Before that, from 1972-2007, the ball did not have any sort of marking on it. Originally, these balls were just white with the NFL logo printed in red, similar to today's game balls. These balls were actually first used in the 1970 season after several players suffered retinal damage due to overexposure to sunlight while playing outdoor football games.
Every football featured white stripes in the mid-1920s. According to Rick Walls, an Eastern Region Coordinator for the National Football Foundation, in an ESPN Magazine editorial, the NFL changed the color of the ball to white with black stripes in 1941 to improve visibility during night games.
There is some debate about who came up with the idea to switch the color of the ball and its design. Some sources claim it was Pittsburgh Steeler Harry Danieley who introduced the black-with-white-stripes design in 1956, while others credit Chicago Bears owner George Halas. Either way, it proved to be a successful innovation that is still used today.
It wasn't until 1959 that all NFL games began using a ball with no distinguishing colors. The change was made because black players in the league believed that the white ball made them appear like robots against the background of a dark stadium. They felt that if they were able to just see the ball as it flew through the air, they could make more effective catches.
Before the color change, most balls were white with red or blue markings. These balls were called "national" balls because they were given out at televised NFL games held in different parts of the country.
The black-and-white-striped ball was first used in a regular season game on October 19, 1956, between the Steelers and the Browns.
The original color was leather, but this was found to be too expensive so grass was used instead.
The black color came from the turf; before this change, the ball was gray. The decision to make the ball more visible on dark nights when there was a chance of rain was probably a good one.
There have been attempts over time to bring back the old color. In 1984, the league ordered that all balls be made from synthetic materials because rubber balls were deteriorating too fast due to increased kicking and throwing practices. However, the ban was lifted after the 1987 season when some teams continued to use natural-fiber balls. Today, many professional and college football players use balls that are not black or white; some are even orange!
In addition to improving visibility, the black/white color scheme also helps receivers distinguish the ball from puddles or other objects on the field after a player has caught it. This is important because if a receiver doesn't do this, he may take a loss while trying to maintain control of the ball.
You might wonder why there aren't any yellow footballs used in sports competitions.
For games, football players frequently put black stripes behind their eyes, known as "eye black." By absorbing light, black stripes are claimed to reduce glare. This allows a player to see more clearly in low-light conditions.
The color used for eye black is usually dark brown or black. Sometimes red or yellow is also seen.
Eye black is worn by athletes of all disciplines to improve their vision during game play or training. It is also used as a form of protest by players who feel that their constitutional right to free speech has been violated by the institution they represent. In the NFL, only the head coach can decide whether or not a player will wear eye black during a game. The decision is generally made after discussion with the player involved.
In international football, eye black is used by players as a form of identification. Each country has a different color associated with it, so that players can be identified by team officials and other players' eyes aren't distracted by their face paint.
In professional wrestling, some wrestlers apply dark makeup around their eyes to make them look more intimidating. This is called "eyeball protection".