Who Would Have Thought? NFL Referees Are Human After All

FiveThirtyEight, sometimes referred to as 538, is a website that focuses on opinion poll analysis, politics, economics, and sports blogging. The website, which takes its name from the number of electors in the United States electoral college, was founded on March 7, 2008, as a polling aggregation website with a blog created by analyst Nate Silver. In August 2010, the blog became a licensed feature of The New York Times online. It was renamed FiveThirtyEight: Nate Silver’s Political Calculus. In July 2013, ESPN announced that it would become the owner of the FiveThirtyEight brand and site, and Silver was appointed as editor-in-chief. The ESPN-owned FiveThirtyEight began publication on March 17, 2014. In the ESPN era, the FiveThirtyEight blog has covered a broad spectrum of subjects including politics, sports, science, economics, and popular culture. (from Wikipedia)

I’m providing the background information on fivethirtyeight so that you are aware that because of its ownership by ESPN, there is a good deal of sports related content on its site, and so it is not unusual that the following post appeared on its web site.

The title of the post is “NFL Coaches Yell At Refs Because It Freakin’ Works“, and it was written by  Noah Davis and Michael Lopez.

Davis and Lopez make the claim that there is a sideline bias on certain calls made by refs in the NFL.

To prove it, the authors looked at the rates at which refs call the NFL’s most severe penalties, including defensive pass interference, aggressive infractions like personal fouls and unnecessary roughness, and offensive holding calls, based on where the offensive team ran its play.

For three common penalties, the direction of the play — that is, whether it’s run toward the offensive or defensive team’s sideline — makes a significant difference. In other words, refs make more defensive pass interference calls on the offensive team’s sideline but more offensive holding calls on the defensive team’s sideline. What’s more, these differences aren’t uniform across the field — the effect only shows up on plays run, roughly, between the 32-yard lines, the same space where coaches and players are allowed to stand during play.

The authors note that refs have a difficult task. They make judgment calls in real time, relying on just their eyes and their experience. Refs do not have much information to help them resist the normal subconscious urge to draw on external cues for assistance in making borderline calls.

And just what are those external cues?

The screaming and hat-throwing football personnel huddled along the sidelines between the 32-yard line markers. If they don’t like a call that just happened close to their sideline (or a non-call, as the case may be), the team’s coaches are sure to let the refs know that when the refs are right next to them on that sideline.

Psychologists even have a term for how someone responds in such situations; it’s known as cue learning. Cue learning refers to the concept that people base their judgments on multiple, imperfect sources of information.

Making a real time judgment call is a perfect example of a cue learning situation. Football refs, like all of us, base their decisions on all the information they have at the moment they need to make a decision. In the NFL, it seems that one of those imperfect (and highly biased) sources of information that refs subconsciously use, is the reaction of the coaches on the sideline.

While it may be concerning to think that refs are influenced by such stimuli, I think we need to recognize that most of us would also be influenced in the same way by the same type of stimuli.

So rather than get upset at such calls when they are made, just remember that the refs are simply exhibiting normal human behavior.

Is there anything good that comes out of knowing this tendency for sideline bias?

As a couple of the comments to the article point out, coaches might be able to take advantage of the situation by running a majority of its offensive plays towards its own sideline when you are in that part of the field where such biased calls are made. It’s a matter of just playing the odds.

And as the saying goes, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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