A Sinister Bias in NFL Officiating?

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Down in New Orleans (and beyond), they’re still insisting that this year’s Super Bowl is tainted. The cause is a horrendous call that, as tout le monde knows, sent the Los Angeles Rams rather than the New Orleans Saints to Atlanta for this Sunday’s Super Bowl against the New England Patriots.

What went wrong? Here, the academic literature may help. The cognitive biases that may influence the outcome of a game are one of the most widely studied aspects of professional sports — and some of what’s been learned may prove instructive: The error might come down to something as simple as who was standing where.

First, some background: Even people who care nothing about football may have seen replay after replay of the Saints receiver being clobbered, helmet-to-helmet, by the defender in the waning moments of the playoff game two weeks ago. Had a penalty been called, the Rams would have had only a 2 percent probability of winning. But officials did nothing. So open and notorious was the error that NFL insiders are apparently talking of little else in Atlanta this week.

Before we turn to the academic literature, however, let’s begin with two cautions. First, most of the literature is merely suggestive, with much work left to be done. Second, some of our biases about biases are wrong, for the data do not confirm everything we think we know.

On the other hand, many of the biases that we suspect affect game officials turn out to actually exist. For example, a 2016 paper found that baseball umpires are more likely to call a ball after the previous pitch was called a strike, even when both pitches are in exactly the same spot — a pattern that the authors attribute to gambler’s fallacy. To similar effect, a 2014 study of baseball umpires found that the strike zone “shrinks” when the stakes are high — in particular, when there are already two strikes on the batter.

Or consider what are known as “makeup calls” — the bad call made by a referee to balance a bad call against the other team minutes earlier. Every sport instructs its officials not to consider past errors when making the next call, but fans and commentators alike have long believed that officials do exactly that. A 2012 study of referee rulings in the National Basketball Association strongly suggests that the phenomenon of the makeup call indeed exists. If so, the behavior of coaches who vehemently protest calls they know will not be overturned becomes entirely rational.

Another example: In European soccer, referee bias in favor of the home team pretty clearly exists. And studies seem to confirm the general instinct that much of this bias results from fears that fans may turn violent. In the NFL, however, home-team advantage is easy to demonstrate but difficult to explain. Evidence of bias is thin.

OK, fine — so what about the error in Rams-Saints? What form of cognitive error caused this particular bad call?

We’ll never know for sure, of course, but the literature contains an intriguing if speculative candidate. A 2010 study found that observers knowledgeable about soccer were more likely to overlook a foul when the action moved from their left to their right than when the action moved from their right to their left.

According to the paper, this might well reflect a cultural bias about the direction of movement. In one medium after another, the paper contends, left-right motion is seen as positive, and right-left motion as negative. As one example, it cites an apparent filmmaking convention (one I admit I’ve never thought about) that the good guys enter from screen left and move right, and the bad guys enter from screen right and move left. As another, it points to research suggesting that goals scored from left-to-right are viewed as faster, stronger, and more beautiful than those scored the other way around. As a result of this bias, the paper’s authors argue, negative aspects of left-right motion are more likely to be missed than negative aspects of right-left motion.

How does this relate to Rams-Saints? Consider that the two officials charged with principal responsibility on the play were the down judge and the side judge. At the start of the play, both were positioned with the offense on their left and the defense on their right. This means that with respect to those two officials, the motion of the play in question was left to right — precisely where the study suggests a foul is less likely to be called.

OK, that’s a highly speculative answer. It’s only one study, and the authors freely admit its weaknesses.  Besides, even if this perceptual theory does explain the error, knowing more about how the non-call happened isn’t likely to provide much solace for Saints fans.

But neither are lawsuits and wild conspiracy theories. And calls by Saints fans to hurt the NFL’s finances by refusing to watch the Super Bowl seem unlikely to make a dent in ratings that advertisers expect to be as humongous as usual. The likelihood of rule changes to reduce the chance of recurrence of this year’s embarrassment also won’t make embittered fans feel any better.

Probably nothing will.  But even if we can’t assuage their pain we, should at least work hard at understanding what went wrong.

For example, a 2011 study of soccer referees in Brazil found no relationship between the official’s distance from a foul and the accuracy of the call. To the surprise of the authors, officials far from the play were as likely to be right as those close by. The angle from which the official views the play might make a difference — or it might not.

On the other hand, a 2018 study of baseball umpires suggests that they make calls in a remarkably rational manner.

Some observers suggest that particular referees call games differently when different teams are involved.

My editor apologizes for stealing the paper's title for the headline to this piece.

Chief among them: The study was of soccer players studying photographs, not of referees viewing games in real time. As the authors concede, we’d need a study of the second kind before reaching strong conclusions.

True, they can peruse the web for claims that every Super Bowl winner cheated.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”

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