Sport risks losing fans and talented individuals unless it tackles colour blind issues, says expert

A picture of people partaking in a sporting activity

Dr Adam Bibbey, Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology, has been researching colour blindness in sport for five years.

He says that more needs to be done to avoid negatively affecting spectators’ experience of sport, as well as participants' chances of fulfilling their potential.

This Saturday’s Six Nations rugby union match between Ireland and Wales will be the final time that both sides will wear their traditional green and red coloured jerseys in the fixture. This is due to new policy from World Rugby to avoid kit clashes that could negatively impact colour-blind viewers. 

Dr Bibbey, who himself is colour blind, discusses what being colour blind means, how it affects both a sportsperson and fan’s participation, and what more needs to be done to tackle the problem.

What is colour blindness and how many people does it affect? 
In the general population, 1 in 12 (8%) men and 1 in 200 (0.5%) women have some form of colour blindness (over 300 million colour blind people worldwide). Colour blindness is caused by the deficiency of cones in our eyes which are used to distinguish different colours. We have green, red and blue cells in our cones and a deficiency in these will determine which colours individuals struggle to see. The level of deficiency will also impact the severity of colour blindness.    

How can it cause difficulties for athletes while playing sports? 
Our research has demonstrated that colour blindness can have an impact both during training and competition. For example, colour blind individuals may struggle to distinguish certain bib colours (for instance, green and yellow) and ability to see training equipment on the grass (such as red or orange cones on the pitch). While playing sports like football, colour blind individuals can mistakenly pass to the opposition, to officials or just out of play. Additionally it can increase decision making time to make passes thus reducing their performance level.

Is the red/ green combination that Wales and Ireland wear the only colour clash that causes issues, or are there any other examples? 
As there are three different types of colour blindness (red, green and blue deficiency) this will impact the colours which individuals struggle to identify. For certain individuals red and green (like Wales and Ireland) are difficult to distinguish. However, for other individuals they may be able to see a difference between red and green, but may struggle to distinguish between blue, red and black or white and pink. An example of this would be a recent football match between Sunderland AFC (red and white stripes) and Newcastle United (black and white stripes) which caused challenges for colour blind individuals. 

How much of an impact does a kit colour clash have on a supporter/ observer who is colour blind?
The impact on spectators can be huge and can lead to individuals not being able to watch sport whether in person or on the TV. Colour blind individuals report turning off their TV because they cannot distinguish the players from the opposing teams. Although some teams may wear different colour shorts (that is, dark versus light)  to overcome potential shirt clashes, this is only a small surface area thus reducing the overall experience of spectating and can lead to increased mental demand. This can also impact colour blind commentators who struggle to distinguish between teams.     

Is it mainly team sports - where different colours are deliberately worn - that cause an issue for people who are colour blind, or are there any individual sports that can cause difficulties? 
Within team sports there are issues with kit clashes which can lead to players passing to the opposition, officials or even out of play due to certain line markings. In terms of individual sports, then there will be a detrimental impact where colours are required to participate. For example, in snooker, individuals may struggle to distinguish between the red, green and brown balls. A further example is the use of colour to distinguish the difficulty of certain routes, such as in skiing where green, blue, red and black indicate the difficulty of the ski slopes. This could have huge safety implications where individuals are exposed to demands outside of their capability.  

How impactful could being colour blind be for young athletes who hope to become professional sportspeople?
Having conducted screening for colour blindness in elite male football players, we have found a prevalence of 1 in 19 (5%) as opposed to 1 in 12 (8%) in the general population. This suggests that individuals may be dropping out of sport and not able to make it to the highest level due to some of the challenges which they encounter due to colour blindness. The embarrassment of making mistakes and the inability to fulfil their potential would have a detrimental impact on their mental health. Additionally, dropping out of sport would also impact a person's physical health and social well-being if they are not able to play and interact with friends on their former team. To overcome these difficulties and to prevent drop out, relatively easy changes could be made. For example, the use of alternative coloured kits and training equipment such as using yellow and blue as opposed to red and orange. The key consideration is to ensure that the contrast between colours is evident, for example dark vs light.

Additionally, through increased awareness and coach education, players may be more willing to speak about their specific challenges without fear of being dropped or dismissed. Finally, increased screening in sport and schools could potentially diagnose individuals who may not be aware that they are colour blind and have unknowingly faced a range of challenges. 

Are there any current high profile sports stars that are colour blind?
Two former male Scottish rugby union players, Mike Blair and Chris Patterson, have both publicly said that they are colour blind, as well as Sir Bill Beaumont, current Chairman of World Rugby.
Other high profile names include Jürgen Klopp, current manager of Liverpool FC, ex England cricketer Sir Ian Botham, and Remi Allen, current England and Birmingham City FC footballer in the Women’s Super League.

Are there any specific leagues/ tournaments/ sports that have already made deliberate attempts to prevent colour clashes? 
In the National Football League (NFL) in America, the home team will usually wear their home kit with the away team playing in white. The key aspect is to ensure that there is contrast between kits. In 2025, World Rugby will introduce their policy on colour blindness to avoid kit clashes. There are guidelines in football but these require greater implementation.

Traditional shirt colours have been worn for many years so this must have been a problem for a long time? Why is it only now that these steps are being taken?
The challenges faced by colour blind individuals have always been there but there is now an increased awareness with greater focus on equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in society and sport. Sporting organisations now have specific EDI departments and organisations such as Colour Blind Awareness strive to tackle the challenges faced by colour blind individuals.    

What would you like to see, five years from now, to eliminate concerns/ difficulties for athletes and spectators in sport who are colour blind? 
The aim would be to increase awareness of the general public to aid understanding of the challenges of colour blind individuals. New policy (and implementation) within sport to ensure that kit clashes are considered and avoided would be a huge step forward. Additionally, coach and club education is key to ensure that they set up practices to be colour blind friendly, thus allowing colour blind individuals to fulfil their potential within performance sport and remain in sport across all levels.

Dr Bibbey works closely with Kathryn Albany-Ward, the founder of non-profit organisation Colour Blind Awareness, which was founded in 2010 with the aim of raising awareness of the needs of colour blind people in society. 

Additionally Dr Bibbey undertook a three-year research project called Tackling Awareness Colour Blindness in Sport (TACBIS). The research highlighted the lower prevalence of colour blindness in elite sport compared to the general population as well as the challenges of colour blind individuals across Europe.