On Super Bowl Sunday, the eyes of the world turn to their television sets to tune in the big game. No matter which team you’re rooting for, there’s one group of people on the field who can play a big part in how the game turns out. Who are they? The referees, of course!

A referee is a neutral party who oversees a game and makes on-the-spot decisions about enforcement of the rules of the game. In addition to referee, such persons are often called by other terms in various sports, such as umpire, judge, linesman or timekeeper.

The term referee got its start in soccer. Early on, two teams would simply nominate captains who would consult with each other if a dispute arose. Over time, teams began to bring along a separate person — called an umpire — just to oversee their games, so that captains could concentrate on playing the game.

Eventually, teams figured out that a third neutral official was needed to oversee games. This official would be “referred to” if the teams’ umpires couldn’t come to an agreement regarding a dispute.

This third neutral official became known as the referee, or the one to whom disputes were referred! The umpires eventually became what we today call linesmen or assistant referees.

In American football, the referee supervises the play of the game and has final authority over all on-field rulings. The referee has a team of up to six other officials who help him.

These other officials are also commonly called referees. However, they also have official titles based upon their position and responsibilities, such as head linesman, line judge, umpire, back judge, side judge and field judge.

Referees usually wear clothing that distinguishes them from the players to avoid confusion on the playing field. For example, in soccer, referees often wear either solid black or bright colors (blue, yellow, green or orange). In most North American sports, referees wear vertical black and white stripes.

So how did the zebra-like uniform come to be? Legend has it that the striped uniform was developed by Lloyd Olds, a high-school and college referee from Michigan.

As the story goes, he usually wore a solid white shirt. At a college football game in 1920, the visiting team also wore white. When their quarterback mistakenly handed off the football to Olds, he knew he had to come up with a different uniform.

Olds decided that wearing stripes would be the best way to avoid confusion. He had a friend make him a black and white striped shirt, which he wore for the first time during the 1921 state basketball championships. Other referees saw his outfit and started copying it. The rest, as they say, is history!


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    • Hello, Julia! Thanks so much for visiting Wonderopolis and for leaving us a comment! Today’s Wonder of the Day® is about referees because today is Super Bowl Sunday! Lots of Wonder Friends will be watching the big game later today, and we know some of them have WONDERed why referees wear stripes! :-)

  1. Cool!! I love learning these interesting little snippets and sharing them with my own children and my preschool classes! This will be a fun one to share tomorrow…pretty sure most of my little students will be watching the big game today! Thank you for a wonderful site!

    • What SUPER nice things to say about Wonderopolis, Sandy! We’re happy to hear that you love learning here as much as we do! Enjoy the game! :-)

  2. I liked this wonder, especially when I play soccer I always see referees! I still have one question. How long have referees been wearing striped shirts? Thanks for helping me wonder!:-)

    • That’s a great question, Ian! As the story goes, Mr. Lloyd Olds from Michigan was the first referee to wear a striped shirt at a game in 1920. He did it so he wouldn’t blend in with either of the two teams who were playing each other! :-)

  3. Dear Wonderopolis,
    I think that referees wear stripes so they are visible during the game. I think tomorrow’s wonder is about bugs.
    Paige ;)

    • We think you’re absolutely RIGHT about that, Paige (right about the referee fact, that is…we’ll have to visit tomorrow’s Wonder to see if you’re right about that fact, too)! Thanks for leaving us another SUPER comment today! :-)

    • That’s a WONDERful guess, Dani! We can’t wait to check out tomorrow’s Wonder of the Day® to see if your guess is correct! :-)

    • It makes us really happy to hear that you like Wonderopolis, Maddie! Thanks so much for visiting this Wonder of the Day®! :-)

  4. I was just watching the Super Bowl and then I saw the wonder, before I read the answer I made a prediction and it was that referees can be more noticeable when they where stripes. Then I read the wonder’s answer and I was right!

    • Way to go, Maya! We’re SUPER proud of you for making a prediction about this Wonder of the Day® and then learning more about why referees wear stripes! :-)

  5. I liked this wonder of the day because I play softball and the umpires wear blue, or I hardly see them wearing black. But sometimes I do see them wear black. I really do like this wonder of the day!! <3

    • We’re so glad to hear that, Cassidy! You are a GREAT Wonder Friend for always leaving us such awesome comments…THANK YOU! :-)

    • We think that’s a really good reason to wear striped uniforms, Ayden! Thanks for telling us you liked this Wonder of the Day® about referees! :-)

  6. I think next time when my mother is trying to referee between me and my little sister, I would have her wear a striped shirt. It would make her refereeing more efficient.
    Wouldn’t you agree, Wonderopolis?

    • We think that’s some pretty clever and creative thinking on your part, Rickii, but maybe your mom would like it better if she didn’t have to referee between you and your sister at all? Thanks so much for being a GREAT Wonder Friend! :-)

  7. Wonderopolis,
    I used to think that referees wore stripes so the players did not run over the referee during the game.

    • That’s part of the reason, Nicholas! Referees need to stand out on the court, field, etc., so they don’t accidentally get hit or get passed the ball! Striped or brightly colored shirts help them do that! :-)

    • Playing volleyball is SUPER fun, Marion…we love it! It’s fun to play a game of volleyball with a group of Wonder Friends and try our best to get the ball over the net! :-)

    • It makes us super happy to hear that you learned something new by exploring this Wonder of the Day®, Peanut! Thank you for being a GREAT Wonder Friend! :-)

    • We do, too, Johnathan! Thank you for sharing your thoughts about referees after you explored this Wonder of the Day® about them! :-)

    • Thanks for sharing why you think referees where stripes, Hannah! We’re glad you stopped by Wonderopolis today! :-)

  8. Wonderopolis,
    Today my class is getting to explore a wonder and we are writing about our wonder! I searched “history of basketball” and it came up with this wonder. I never would have thought refs would wear just right. As I see they changed that for a certain reason:) I think its fun that there are different names like lineback, judge and more! Thanks for sharing Wonderopolis!

    • We’re glad you found this Wonder in your search, Team Unger 12! It sounds like you learned a lot…we think that ROCKS! :-)

  9. Wonderopolis,
    Today my class is making a day each week for Wonderopolis. I never new why they wore black and white. I always watch the super bowl and never knew refs were so important. I am so happy I found out who was the first, Lloyd Olds. I wonder how many there are today…?

    • That’s a GREAT question, Team Unger 4! With all the sports being played around the world, we don’t think we can even guess how many referees there are out there! We appreciate them for helping us have fun playing sports, though! :-)


    • Thanks for another awesome comment, Team Unger 9! We’re happy you learned some fun new facts and some spiffy new vocab words by exploring this Wonder! We think we will both have to do a bit more WONDERing about other types of referees and when they started participating in other sports! :-)

    • We’re really happy that you liked this Wonder, too, Monkey! Thanks for visiting different Wonders today and leaving us a comment on each one you explore! :-)

  11. Hi wonderopolis!!!
    I’ve always wondered why do referees wear stripes? Why did it have to be black and white stripes? Why couldn’t be red and yellow zig-zag stripes? Two new vocabulary words I learned is neutral and linesman. Two new facts I learned is the term referee got its start in soccer and the striped uniform was developed by Lloyd Olds. Thank you so much for the interesting info and wonders!! Bye!!:)

    • We think it ROCKS that you thought this Wonder was interesting and that you learned some new facts and vocab words, Team McNeil 3! Thanks for sharing your comment with everyone in Wonderopolis today! :-)

    • That would be a WONDERfully COLORFUL game, Buckley! We like your creative way of thinking about referees! :-)

    • We’re glad to hear that you, your mom and your dad are exploring Wonderopolis together, Ethan! We like to say the family that WONDERs together learns together! Have a WONDERful day! :-)

    • Hey there, Bobbyd! We’re sorry to hear this Wonder wasn’t one of your favorites, but perhaps you learned something new! We Wonder if you’re excited for the Super Bowl this weekend? :)

  12. It was interesting that referees wear strips because of Lloyd Olds, but I thought the video did not make much sense to the topic.

    • Hi Faith, thanks for sharing your comment! We are glad you liked learning something new with us today, even if you didn’t enjoy the Wonder video very much. We Wonder if you have a favorite sport to play? :)

  13. I think that in a soccer game they need more referees because a lot of the time they get calls wrong or they miss things that need to be called. But most of the time the refs are decent.

    • Great, Autumn! We know that those refs have to run a lot to keep up with you guys. It must be a hard job. ;-) Thanks for sharing with us today!

  14. In soccer, I think we need to add an extra referee because some of the time the line judges don’t call the offense on the other team off-sides so they get a goal. In softball there should be at least two umpires to call the plays, one behind the plate, and one in the field so they can make the close calls a lot easier. In basketball there should be around two referees just to make sure the right call is made.

    • Thanks for WONDERing with us, Louise! We encourage you to explore your question by searching online! We hope you’ll come back to Wonderopolis and share with all of us what you discover! :)

  15. Referees are my favorite in sports because most of them i know and they are nice to me and never mean until i like start a fight or some thing. Any way what is your favorite thing in sports you already know what my favorite thing in sports is i want to know what your favorite thing is sports is. I know this was long but thank you for spending your time reading this for me.

    • Thanks for sharing your comment, Dani! One of our favorite things about sports is being able to work as a team towards a common goal! Do you like playing on a team? :)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • Why do referees wear stripes?
  • What do referees do?
  • What are some other names for referees?

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Try It Out

Ready to exercise your creative imagination? We want you to make up a story about a real zebra who is a referee.

Feel free to be as wild and crazy as you want to be. The sky is the limit. If you want to write down your story and illustrate it with pictures, go for it!

Perhaps your zebra referees friendly games in the wilds of Africa. What animals participate? What sports do they play?

Maybe giraffes play against rhinoceroses in exciting soccer games. Or is it the lions against the jaguars in a game of football?

You decide! When you’re finished, be sure to email us a copy of your story or post it on Facebook. We can’t wait to read your real-life zebra referee adventure!


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