The bizarre idea that umpires somehow favour blonde-haired players of a “distinctive” appearance first came to light in the season of 2001 – but the curious Brownlow voting-bias phenomenon seems to have stuck around.
The Herald Sun in 2001 suggested the AFL enforce a new rule, 13.7.7, proclaiming every field umpire should be made to write 100 times: “When allocating Brownlow votes, I must not be lulled into thinking the player with peroxide hair is necessarily better than the one whose hair is naturally coloured.”
The suggestion was ignored —obviously — and later that year, Brisbane’s Jason Akermanis was the third blonde midfielder consecutively to win the Brownlow.
“One obvious conclusion can be drawn from Monday night’s Brownlow medal result”, The Australian reported. “Any player who covets the prestigious award had better get his hair bleached.”
Players can be pigeonholed into two categories — distinctive and non distinctive — separating “standout” looking players with visible tattoos or striking hair from the “average” looking players.
James Coventry’s “Footballistics” used the AFL’s online image database to create an extensive index of every player’s hair colour from 1998 to 2017, sorted into seven categories: though unavoidably subjective, given the nature of opinion.
AFL games played and Brownlow votes by hair colour, 1998-2017
A brief overview of the basic vote-polling averages of each group supports the idea that blonde hair makes players more noticeable to umpires, easily out-performing their brown and black-haired counterparts.
Interestingly, players with no hair at all seemed even more preferable, running along the principle of intuitive sense – players who stand out are just more likely to be noticed.
Basic human psychology deems this phenomenon the “pop-out effect”: similar-looking objects (dark-haired players in uniform) against different-looking objects (blonde and bald players) fail to stand out.
“Brownlow voting is very retrospective, in that the umpires need to reflect upon and essentially rate all the players within a game,” said Professor David Neumann from Griffith University.
“From a cognitive perspective, thats a lot of overload. Their job [is made] a little bit easier by picking out the most salient players and events”- decided seemingly subconsciously.
Was it a coincidence Crows wingman Rory Atkins dyed his brown hair bleach-blonde after consistently failing to gain a Brownlow vote? We’re on the fence.