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Why Do Athletes Use Eye Black?

August 9, 2022 Posted by Dr. Shah

When we watch a sports match, it is common to see the athletes with a black, horizontal line painted underneath each of their eyes. Many of us have grown up seeing players with these stripes but have not questioned their significance in the game or why people have them. Although not conclusively proven, it is a hypothesis that using eye black can help a player track the ball in the air easier.

The Theory Behind Using Eye Black

Black and white are not technically colors, as they are shades. When we see a white object, it is a combination of all the different wavelengths of colors reflecting on it. Black is the opposite; it is what we see when no light reflects on an object.

When a player is running across a field, there are many bright lights pointed in their direction, from the stadium lighting to the direct sunlight. This light can impede their depth perception and ability to catch the ball as it flies through the air. The eye black has the purpose of absorbing the interfering light better than the natural skin tone can, reducing the glare for the player.

What is Eye Black Made Of?

One of the earliest recorded instances of eye black was when Babe Ruth used grease, which many players copied in later years. This grease consisted of burnt cork ashes and shoe polish, both of which could be easily attained. Modern eye black grease contains beeswax, paraffin, and carbon soot.

Later, players began using eye black stickers. These became popular because they were easy to apply, and they did not leave much residue when players remove them at the end of a game. These stickers are usually made of patented fabric with an adhesive.

The Benefits of Using Eye Black

Babe Ruth, a successful baseball player in the early 1920s, popularized the trend of wearing black strips across his face. When other players caught on, they sometimes did it simply because it gave them a psychological advantage and enhanced the feeling of competitiveness.

Does Eye Black Work?

Experts in the field disagree about the quantifiable benefits of using eye black. Some think that the reduction of glare is significant, but it depends on the players’ eye color. Others insist that the traditional eye black grease is more effective than the new anti-glare stickers but there are few studies to back up the claim.

The hit TV show, MythBusters, tackled the question in an episode aired in 2008. The showrunners determined that while the reduction of glare was minimal, the black stripes were helpful while distinguishing between light and dark, e.g., when a dark ball was being thrown at them through the light sky.

Many players continue to draw the stripes across their faces with the mentality of keeping with tradition. For some, playing without the eye black may make them feel more vulnerable, and put them off their game.

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