It just happened that when M Salut https://safc.blog/?p=46095 was passing on “Untold Arsenal’s findings about referees being biased against Arsenal and towards Sunderland I was dipping into “The future of football: Challenges for the twenty-first century” (Garland et al, 2003). Its final chapter discusses refereeing and its author, Sharon Colwell, should know her onions as she completed a PhD on elite refereeing in 2004.
Colwell’s central tenet is
“the room for interpretation in the Laws is a key element in understanding the reasons why refereeing issues have been, and continue to be, so contentious… …Referees are expected to interpret the laws and to apply them in spirit rather than too literally”
This requires refs to achieve a balance between common sense and consistency, which isn’t easy. To help them achieve this balance they can ignore minor offences to keep the game flowing, which leads to a situation where judgements will always vary. She cited David Elleray, then a Premier League Referees’ Spokesman, who put it quite succintly:
“If a referee is letting the game flow, he is probably satisfied that he does not need to penalise every foul, that the players are not reacting to being fouled and, therefore, there is limited danger of retaliation… referees can appear to be inconsistent during a game because they appear to be letting a lot go by and then suddenly bang, bang, bang, bang, everything is being penalised…People don’t always see the overall context.”
It strikes me that anyone watching a match afterwards, no matter how good she or he is, won’t always see the overall context and might therefore tend to apply the letter of the law more strictly, or just differently, from the ref on the ground. Not only will there be different views on any incident, there will be different views on the importance of that incident. As Colwell puts it:
“when we ask referees to demonstrate common sense we are not really expecting them to do what they think should be done but to do what we think should be done”
In other words, you can expect differences of opinion, which leads to the possibility that sites like “refs decisions” and “Untold Arsenal” are reporting these differences as dodgy decisions.
Colwell then goes on to discuss the pressures on refs. There’s media coverage; TV will show controversial issues repeatedly, in slow motion and from various angles, allowing all and sundry to form their own view, to influence others and be influenced themselves. There’s pressure from managers before and after games, and there’s pressure during the game as players try to mislead or influence the ref (part of the “overall context”). I’d be surprised if the qualified refs referee decisions uses weren’t exposed to at least some of the pre and post-match analysis before they watched videos of matches to make pronouncements on decisions. If so, how can anyone be sure they are making an unbiased decision themselves? Now, I have to say I haven’t done more than glance at the referee decisions website and haven’t scrutinised their methodology, but what I have seen leaves me disinclined to believe their results are valid.
Does this mean referees don’t show bias? No, I haven’t disproved a negative. All I have done is give my opinion here and elsewhere https://safc.blog/?p=46131 that the reporting of bias by these sites has some flaws. Enough flaws, I think, for fans elsewhere to take their findings with a large dose of salt.
Is there proof elsewhere that refs do show bias? There might be. I have neglected the crowd effect in my writing to date. There is some evidence to suggest large crowds can sway the ref in favour of the home team. Look, for example, at the study by Professor Andrew Lane and others published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine in 2006. You can find it at: http://www.jssm.org/vol5/n2/9/v5n2-9pdf.pdf. It begins:
Evidence points to the existence of a home advantage effect in soccer with referees giving more decisions to the home team being a plausible explanation for this effect.
If this study and the sources it cites are valid then it is possible, given the size of our crowd, that we might just get some decisions going our way. But there are no prizes for guessing which teams are likely to get more. Is anyone from Arsenal complaining about that?
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