Trying to avoid filling my blog with unsolicited sports fandom commentary, I rarely broach the topic of sports. Based on what I am currently reading, I am compelled to share what I have learned about referee bias and home field advantage.
I am stepping over the line with this post…slightly.
In a few weeks I will begin teaching a course for high school seniors, Sports Literature. As I have been preparing, I have been reading the books I will share with my students. The book with which I will be kicking off the semester has me fascinated.
SCORECASTING: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played And Games Are Won written by Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim is an in-depth study of the subtle biases that influence sports, particularly professional sports. One the eve of the NFL Divisional Round Playoffs commencing and my beloved Green Bay Packers preparing to battle the San Francisco 49ers, I couldn’t help but share some engaging insight this book offers.
The chapter that has caught my attention most, no doubt because the Packers are traveling TO San Francisco for their playoff game, “What IS Driving the Home Field Advantage”, asserts that there is a single factor in home field advantage. One might think it is the crowd. Another might think travel and time differences might be the advantage for the home team. Even further, one might suppose that professional athletes play differently (effectively or ineffectively) on the road versus at home.
In fact, Maskowitz and Wertheim claim the “leading cause of the home field advantage is…referee bias” (p. 165).
Yep. That’s right. For all you sports fans who declare your team got screwed from the officials, there just maybe some truth in that sentiment. And Maskowitz and Wertheim have plenty of evidence to back it up!
With volumes of statistical data and psychological research, Maskowitz and Wertheim launch out on a mission to show, among other things, referee bias. What they found was astounding. “When humans are faced with enormous pressure–say, making a crucial call with a rabid crowd yelling, taunting and chanting a few feet away–it is natural to want to alleviate that pressure. By making snap-judgment calls in favor of the home team, referees, whether they consciously appreciate it or not, are relieving some of that stress” (p. 159).
Some might think this obvious, but there is a correlation with the crowd size and home field advantage. Despite what you might believe is causing that advantage, like the Seattle Seahawks 12th MAN or the DAWG POUND in Cleveland driving their home team heroes to extraordinary levels, the fact is the referees are more affected than the athletes.
“Even in the NFL, in which most games are sold out, the home-away discrepancies in penalties and turnovers increase with crowd size. With virtually every discretionary official’s call–in virtually every sport–the home advantage is significantly larger when the crowd is bigger” (p. 162). The appropriate conclusion is “(h)ome team favoritism…should be greater the larger and more relevant the crowd and the more ambiguous the situation. They may also be taking a cue from the crowd when trying to make the right call, especially in an uncertain situations” (p. 160).
In 2007 the Italian government forced professional soccer teams who did not have sufficient security at their stadiums to play home games without spectators. Upon analyzing the data from these ‘spectator-less’ games, it was found that the behavior of the athletes, namely their level of play, did not change. What did change, however, was the officiating. “The same referee overseeing the same two teams in the same stadium behaved dramatically differently when spectators were present versus when no one was watching” (p. 164).
This got me reflecting on the game earlier in the year when the Packers traveled TO Seattle to play the Seahawks on Monday Night Football. As has been well documented, the Seahawks won the game on a much argued completed Hail Mary pass from quarterback Russell Wilson (a Wisconsin favorite, by the way) to wide receiver Golden Tate. It appeared as though Packers defensive back M.D. Jennings had intercepted and gained control of the ball before Tate muscled his way to, what was moments later decided, simultaneous possession. The NFL rules indicate that simultaneous possession results in awarding the offense possession of the football. In this case, the ball was caught (possessed) in the end zone, resulting in a touchdown, giving the Seahawks enough points to win the game.
Arguably, CenturyLink Field is THE loudest stadium in professional sports. In the video and photographs of the miraculous simultaneous possession reception that followed, the backdrop often included Seahawk fans–who are seemingly closer to the field than in other NFL stadiums–screaming, ranting, and pounding on the stadium walls for the referees to make the favorable decision for the home team.
The officials obliged, relieved the pressure, and ruled in favor of the home team. “…(T)he closer officials are to the crowd, the more likely they are to favor the home team” (p. 167).
In reading SCORECASTING, I am reassured that players most often dictate the outcome of a game. I am hopeful that Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, and company will out-execute and out-perform their counterparts from San Francisco. I know the 49er fans will be ready for some football on Saturday night by showing rabid support for their team. I suppose, if they were smart, they would direct all their attention and energy to the referees rather than the players. That is counter intuitive and goes against conventional fan wisdom, if there is such a thing.
Moskowitz and Wertheim aptly assert that when fans scream players (for or against), the outcome is not affected. On the other hand, when they scream at officials (against, I suppose), “well…that’s another story entirely” (p. 167).