Pink NFL Penalty Flags Surprisingly Cause Confusion

Posted on October 6, 2013 | in Football, Visual Management | by
nfl pink penalty flag

For Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the NFL players, coaches, and referees will be decked out in pink.

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.

nfl pink uniform trim

It’s really hard to tell if a pink flag has been thrown among all of the pink trim teams are using 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.

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4 Responses to “Pink NFL Penalty Flags Surprisingly Cause Confusion”

  1. Mark Graban says:

    What color does the NFL wear to increase awareness of the dangers of chronic traumatic encephalopathy?

    Oh, wait, they don’t.

    I’m more willing to ascribe the NFL’s adoption of pink to an attempt to make money off of selling women’s jerseys more so than trying to help anyone.

    They only donate a small percentage of what they sell.

  2. John Hunter says:

    I think Mark is right.

    Also this is an example of why piloting new ideas is wise. The truth is we often don’t pilot stuff. Many times it works out fine (and no-one mentions we didn’t pilot it on a small scale). When you don’t pilot and it then fails on a big scale this is the question, I think.

    Were we bozos for not seeing the risk – looking back is it a pretty strong case we should have piloted.

    If we often don’t pilot and it works 99 times out of 100 it may be we are pretty good at knowing what needs to be piloted and excepting some failures is ok in order to get things done. Part of the decision that is critical is making sure you don’t fail to pilot when it is really costly to be wrong (which is part of the decision on whether to pilot).

    We can just always point to failure to pilot as the dumb thing to do when it fails. But I see that as a bit overly simplistic. Many organization don’t pilot well. Getting them to do so all the time would likely stop you from doing better stuff. Getting them to do so when

    1) there are likely to learn things
    2) there are significant questions about how it would work
    3) the costs of widespread failure are large
    4) we can’t consider the potential risks and make a judgement that there is likely not to be a problem

    Piloting on a small scale is best. It is what I recommend and encourage. I just think seeing the failure to pilot as a cause of the widespread problem is too simplistic. Why did we fail to pilot needs to be the next question – don’t stop at the failure to pilot as the root cause. From there you will nearly always discover, unless maybe you are Toyota or the Kaizen Institute or something 🙂 that your organization consistently fails to pilot before adopting on a wide scale. Then you need to dive into that issue…

    With this particular example it seems to me one that could have been thought about rationally and a decent case that we don’t need to pilot could have been made. And that illustrates that there is always a risk to implementing without piloting (there is a risk of doing it anyway including a very big one of failing to catch the problems because your pilot failed to capture some important features (for example – you didn’t think of the need to pilot with pink towels… – this would be an easy mistake to make).

    And it shows why thinking about pilots is important – which is another thing we often fail to do, considering how to make the pilot cover the risky scenarios that may take place. Sometimes organizations will use certain locations to pilot stuff which can be useful – you can train these locations to provide good feedback, etc.. But as soon as you make the pilot locations different than were it will be done there are risks of not catching things.

  3. Mark Graban says:

    They have studied and adjusted…

    “NFL to scrap pink penalty flags after Week 5 confusion”

    This idea was originally suggested through a letter from an 11 year old. I am not making this up.

    –> Pink flags weren’t a league idea in the first place. When 11-year-old Dante Cano from Marlboro, N.J. wrote a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell last year, that got the concept started. Cano wrote that ” I wanted to know if you could use my idea of pink penalty flags in October for breast cancer awareness,” and asked if Goodell could “please write back.”

    The league DID use pink flags in ONE game last year. I guess this “pilot” wasn’t studied very effectively?

  4. Glenn Townsend says:

    I think that in order to preserve the well-meaning intension of the NFL,can the NFL simply adopt the following.

    Since the NFL officials wear predominantly the Black & White “zebra” stripe, can they simply adopt young Dante Cano’s suggestion by simply utilize a “PREDOMINANTLY PINK” Striped/Checkered Flag? E.G, a “Pink and Yellow Stripe”, or a pink and Yellow checkered Flag?

    I do not believe any NFL teams utilize such color combinations or design.

    My 2 cents.


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