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In Basketball, Why Does the Home Team (Usually) Wear White?

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Uniform colors have a utilitarian purpose—namely, to help us distinguish between rival clubs on game day. After all, life would get confusing fast if spectators couldn’t tell which squad was which.

At home, most North American football and hockey teams wear vibrant, multi-colored jerseys. And unless special permission to do otherwise is granted, visiting players are—again, for the most part—stuck wearing white.

Basketball reverses the trend. In both collegiate and professional contests, it’s the home team that normally dons white while their on-court guests show up in something more eye-catching. The NCAA, NBA [PDF], and WNBA [PDF] all enforce this general guideline. “Opposing team uniforms shall be of contrasting colors,” reads the official NCAA men’s basketball rule book. “The home team shall wear light game jerseys and game shorts and the away team shall wear dark game jerseys and game shorts. This rule may be altered by mutual consent of the competing institutions.”

How did this tradition start? America’s pastime probably had something to do with it.

Towards the turn of the 20th century, Major League Baseball clubs began touting dark blue, black, or (usually) gray jerseys on the road, and white ones at home. Back in those days, teams sometimes had difficulty finding laundry services outside of their own cities. So, for days on end, visiting players were often left with no choice but to wear the same, unwashed jerseys over and over. Darker outfits, therefore, helped mask the inevitable dirt and grass stains.

In its formative years, the younger sport of basketball likely stole and tweaked that custom. At every level from grade school to the pros, clubs usually honor the white-at-home, colors-on-the-road standard. Still, exceptions are out there.

Take the Los Angeles Lakers. 1967 saw the storied team adopt a radically new look. Previously, their colors were as follows: navy blue, royal blue, and white. But in that pivotal year, the club introduced its famous purple and gold chromatic scheme. Notably, the Lakers also emerged as the first NBA franchise to make non-white jerseys their standard home attire. Local fans grew accustomed to watching Jerry West and company take care of business in those now-iconic yellow unis.

Also, fans get to see a whole slew of different jersey colors and designs when a visiting team comes to town. Given how experimental the NBA can get with uniforms (sleeves?!?), a little consistency in your own back yard is much appreciated.

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Big Questions
Why Is the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
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In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
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Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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