Starting last Thursday, the NFL will bring attention to Breast Cancer Awareness Month the same way they have for the last few years – players, coaches, and officials will sport pink accessories and trim. This means players have pink cleats, towels, gloves, armbands, and uniform trim. Officials are throwing pink NFL penalty flags instead of the standard yellow.
Unfortunately, it’s the pink penalty flags that are stirring up a lot of confusion.
During most NFL games it was very easy to tell when a penalty flag was thrown as the yellow flag stood in stark contrast to the field and the colors most teams wear (the Green Bay Packers, Washington Redskins, and Pittsburgh Steelers are the only NFL teams that have a predominance of yellow in their uniforms).
But while the pink flag is another way for the NFL to inject more attention to breast cancer awareness, it also created a new problem in that the contrast went away – was it a flag thrown or did a player drop a towel? Fans and television commentators alike are complaining about the distraction or failure to identify whether a penalty was called very easily.
Many applications of visual indicators are effective because they play on color contrasts to draw attention of the eyes that need to see them. That’s why the yellow flags worked well – it was very clear that a penalty flag was thrown. Pink flags would be just as effective as long as pink towels/cleats/armbands/etc weren’t already proliferating the games being played this month.
It’s unusual for a newly-added bright color element actually becomes less useful in a game but the NFL managed to do it.