Football jersey numbers alter body size perception, per new study

A new study confirms that people think lower jersey numbers make football players look thinner

NBC Universal, Inc.

NFL players have more freedom to select jersey numbers than ever before. However, if their figure is a factor in their jersey decision, they may want to look for a lower number.

A new UCLA study published in the journal PLOS One found that people think players look slimmer and faster with lower jersey numbers than higher jersey numbers.

"The association of numbers and size of proportion is very robust," Laden Shams, a cognitive neuroscientist and professor of psychology and neuroscience at UCLA, told NBC.

In the study, participants were shown images of football players and asked to place them on a scale from "very slender" to "very husky." The results found that people consistently said players in jersey numbers 10-19 looked thinner than players in jersey numbers 80-89 -- even when it was actually the same player.

All of the jersey numbers used in the study had the same width. For example, "19" and "91" take up the same amount of space on a jersey, while "13" is not the same width as a number like "86." Comparing numbers of unequal width would potentially influence the participants' perception and sway the study.

The distinction of lower numbers versus higher numbers goes even further, with Shams saying participants perceived players in the study wearing 19 as bigger than those wearing 17, same for 89 versus 87.

"Even within a very small range of numbers, we can see the effect and the relationship between size and number," Shams said.

Until 2020, NFL players could only wear jersey numbers below 20 at four positions: quarterback, kicker, punter and wide receiver. Receivers could also wear Nos. 80-89, but otherwise numbers above 50 were reserved for positions occupied by bigger players: offensive linemen (Nos. 50-79), defensive linemen (Nos. 50-79, 90-99), linebackers (Nos. 40-59, 90-99) and tight ends (Nos. 40-49, 80-89).

The perception around jersey numbers and their look -- as well as Shams' interest -- existed before the NFL implemented more lenient jersey rules in 2021.

Shams was interviewed for a 2019 article in which ESPN's Kevin Seifert explored the phenomenon. He gathered from player interviews and an analysis that wide receivers prefer Nos. 10-19 over those in the 80s, with some saying Nos. 80-89 should be reserved for "bigger, slower players." However, there wasn't scientific data to back up the reasoning for why people think those higher numbers should belong to bigger player.

There is now thanks to Shams and the UCLA study, and she thinks the correlation extends far beyond the football field.

"We suspect that this may stem from real world objects that we experience in our daily lives," Shams said. "For example, in the gym, the larger weights have numbers written on them that are larger. All objects that are bigger or more massive tend to go with numbers that are larger written on them."

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