Department of Trivial Inquiry: Eye-Blacking

Seeing some of the BCS Championship game last night, between USC and Texas, reminded me that there’s almost always betting value in the underdog. It also raised a not very important issue: What the hell is with the eye blacking?

When I was a lad, football players painted black stripes below their eyes, on the top edge of the lower socket. I’m not certain what they used, but it certainly wasn’t charcoal, as I discovered one Halloween when, at age 9 or 10 and dressed up as a Green Bay Packer, I nearly lacerated my face attempting to apply the smudge of a Kingsford briquette to my tender cheeks. At the time I assumed the black stripes were some sort of menacing war paint, an accessory that made the wearer look barbaric and ready for battle.

A few years later I noticed baseball players wearing the stuff, so I changed my theory. I came to understand that the eye blacking had something to do with improved vision. Supposedly the smudges reduced glare, although I never completely understood exactly how.

Now, watching the semi-professional scholar-athlete-mercenaries from our nations two most successful football programs, I noticed that customized eye-blacking is now in vogue. Instead of a mere dollop of black goo, the payers wear little adhesive patches. Then they write messages — in white ink — inside. (I noticed slogans like “619” — the San Diego area code — and “Ice Cold.”) How this aids in reducing glare I cannot say.

It does, however, seem like another effective marketing opportunity for televised athletes. Could PGA Tour golfers be next?

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