Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

Integrity of game play: Referee bias

This is the third in a series of five posts on the topic of integrity of game play.  The first post discussed the impact of various types of player misconduct on sportsmanship and game outcomes.  Last week’s post debated whether tanking can be ethical and looked at numerous examples of tanking across different sports to compare how it happens and what its effect is. Today’s post is about referee bias and how it affects games, players, and teams.  The fourth post, on March 14, will be about organizational cheating operations by teams.  The fifth post and the last in the series, on March 21, will be about unethical leadership of coaches.

Teams and their fans often accuse referees of being biased or making unfair calls. Whenever players or spectators disagree with the call made or penalty assessed – which, for those on the wrong side of the outcome of the decision, is not all that rare – bias is often suspected or assumed.

Baseline bias in all human judgments can be a very powerful force. It’s often difficult to identify or resist before it has permeated choices made and values of right or wrong assigned.  Habits, routines, and biases can all have tremendous impact on decision-making, sometimes negative but always with the effect of artificially narrowing the framework and obscuring interests and/or consequences from the view of the person choosing.

For more on the role of bias in thinking and decision-making, and how this applies to ethics and the pursuit of integrity, check out this post on behavioral economics and compliance.  For much more on ethical decision-making, and factors like bias that complicate or hinder it, check out this postthis post, or this post.

Accusations and insinuations of bias by referees, in particular, can pose an extra threat to decision-making and thought processes in game play and penalty calls. As these judgments by referees can have a decisive impact on players’ success or competitive outcome and on the game itself, choices they make that are clouded by bias directly challenge game integrity. Prejudicial decisions and actions by referees, linesmen, and other game judges and officials can have a chilling effect on game play.

Some situations where referee bias has been claimed or suspected, and the motivations for or results of and reactions to it, in various sports include:

  • Referee bias in football: bias for – This year’s Super Bowl match-up, the Patriots vs. the Eagles – brought together two football teams who have been popularly associated with opposite claims of referee bias. The Patriots have long been the subject of popular conspiracy theories that they benefit from suspicious or biases calls by referees.       Questionable decisions that could have gone either way aside, commentators often point to refereeing statistics for the Patriots that are either due to extreme luck or possibly indicate some controversial judgment at hand. For more on the rationale behind interpretation of the Patriots’ penalty statistics toward referee bias, check out this article in the Ringer: The Patriots-and-Penalties Conspiracy Theorists Might Have a Point
  • Referee bias in football: bias against – When it comes to the Eagles, the popular claim is the opposite: that referees are prejudiced against the team and call penalties or plays in order to hurt and disadvantage them. In the 2017-18 season, Eagles fans even started an online petition to have one referee, Pete Morelli, prevented from officiating Eagles games in the future due to their insinuation of “clear and statistically obvious bias” against the team. The NFL Referees Association stridently denied these claims and ultimately prevailed in an administrative ruling by the NFL that Morelli’s officiating crew was not biased against the Eagles. For more on this story, check out this USA Today article: NFL referees fight back against accusations of biased officiating and this ESPN story: NFL rules officiating crew has no bias toward Eagles
  • Referee bias in football: popular pressure – For what it’s worth, the critical consensus is that in the match-up of these two teams at Super Bowl LII, the Patriots were not unreasonably advantaged by officiating crews’ judgments. In fact, the Eagles could have received the benefit of the doubt, so to speak, in their ultimate 41-33 victory. Perhaps the intense fan scrutiny and media attention around the reliability of referee judgment, so starkly contrasted between these two teams, increased the pressure on seeking to make iron-clad calls in the big game.       For more on this dynamic in the game, check out this Denver Post article: The Patriots definitely did not get all the calls in the Super Bowl.  For more on the Eagles’ win in Super Bowl LII as it applies to ethical leadership, check out this post.
  • Referee bias in basketball: home bias – Home bias, or referee prejudice toward the home team over the away team, is a widely-observed and discussed form of referee favouritism.  In basketball, one measure of possible home bias is the simple ratio of fouls called on the away team versus fouls called on the home team. The greater the ratio, the higher the evidence of the bias.  This ratio could simply indicate that away teams commit more fouls on unfamiliar courts, or it could be favoritism at play in referee bias. For an interesting statistical study on this, check out this post on the blog Harvard Sports Analysis Collective: NBA Referee Experience and Home Bias
  • Referee bias in hockey: penalty non-calls in playoffs – In the NHL, the calls most frequently accused of reflecting referee bias are the ones that are not made at all.       Hockey players and fans love to hype the atmosphere and magnitude of playoff games. While calling minor penalties can shape the outcome of any hockey game and give rise to fan joy or pain depending on in which direction the call falls, in playoff games the referees are perceived as reluctant to make calls on anything other than the most egregious, obvious of penalties. Referees don’t want to be in the position of deciding the game when a playoff series is directly on the line or drawing the ire of the fans in such an intense environment. For more on this, check out this New Yorker article on a crucial alleged non-call in the New York Islanders-Tampa Bay Lightening second-round playoff series in 2016: No Refereeing is Bad Refereeing  (Editor’s note: Completely free of irony in a post about the role of bias in game integrity, as an Islanders fan I would like to announce in my view that the referee’s decision described in the opening paragraph of the article was correct.)

Check back next week, Wednesday March 14, for the fourth post in this series of five, which will discuss systemic efforts to cheat and gain unfair advantage conducted by team operations, in some cases having a dramatic impact on both reputation and outcome or future competitive possibilities.

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