Football Officiating

Like everything ever written about officiating, this is sour grapes. I was motivated to think about it by the Michigan-Ohio State game, which featured some suspicious officiating. Having had some time to mull it over, I think J.T. probably got the first down. Or anyway, it was too close to call. I think Michigan kinda got screwed with a lot of the other calls in the game, but that one was okay.

However, the whole discussion highlighted again how I disagree with just about everything people say about sports.

  1. There’s a saying that I usually like quite a lot, “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” This is often applied to officiating along the lines of, “don’t ascribe to bias what could be explained by incompetence.” While I usually agree with this sentiment, in this case I think it’s actually quite misleading. It implies that officiating mistakes are based on either bias or incompetence, but not both. That completely mischaracterizes the relationship. Bias and incompetence aren’t opposites. They’re not directly related. However, incompetence opens the door for bias.

    This idea came from my experience with poker. In poker, if your strategy is simple and you know it very well, you can implement correctly even if you’re very tilted. For example, if I’m short-stacked in a tournament and playing a fold/all-in strategy based on a chart, I can execute that strategy even if I’m tilted. On the other hand, if you’re trying to play a very complex strategy that you haven’t completely mastered, even a slight amount of tilt will often cause you to make terrible decisions.

    Applying the idea to officiating, a highly trained, scrupulous official can likely override most bias he has towards the teams to usually make the correct calls. But a less skilled official is not constrained by the correct calls, because he really has no idea what they are. So in the absence of firm knowledge of the right call, his bias is more likely to shine through, because he basically has nothing else to go on.

  2. There’s no such thing as a hold.

    What I mean is, people seem to imagine if we could just define “holding” more cleverly, it could always be called correctly. Maybe some rules could be improved, but for most of this stuff there is no perfect definition. There’s no articulation of the rules that will A. Capture everything we think is holding, B. Exclude everything we don’t think is holding, and C. Be simple and straightforward enough to be called correctly in real-time 100% of the time.

    Football is played in close quarters by incredibly fast and aggressive men trying to get the upper hand in any way they can. These interactions are messy and most of the fouls aren’t really well-defined, nor can they be.

    Along those lines, I don’t really think of it as “hold or not,” I think of it more like a 1-10 scale of how much the action resembles our idea of a hold. This idea calls into questions a few things that get said all the time.

    First, “They’re gonna call that every time.” One of the announcers says this almost every game, but it’s clearly nonsense. Every football game I watch, 9s and 10s go uncalled, and 1s and 2s get called. There’s nothing that gets called “every time.”

    Second, “That’s a great call.” This is often said in reference to something that was called a foul, which didn’t especially appear to be a foul in real-time, but with benefit of replay you can kind of see a plausible foul. This is often cited as a “great call” because the official picked up on something non-obvious. In my book, this is a run-of-the-mill bad call, because it’s basically calling a foul on a 3. It’s inconsistent application of the rules, because if such things were called consistently there’d be multiple fouls every play.

    Third, when outside observers review a game to look for bias, they typically look for “howlers”: completely unjustifiable calls. Well, you’re not really going to find that, because almost every play in the whole game is ambiguous in some way. What bias would look like, if it’s there, is stuff like 3s getting called on one team and 7s going uncalled against the other. When they find this, they typically say something like, “Well there’s not really evidence of bias because these calls are all individually justifiable.” What were you expecting to find?

  3. “They could have won if they played better.”

    I’m surprised how often smart people say some version of this. This is generally a way of one-upping someone who’s complaining about the officiating. The thing is, this is true of literally every team that ever lost a football game. If they had played sufficiently better, they could have won.

    What I don’t like about the statement is it’s misleading. It seems to be saying, they didn’t earn the right to c.omplain about the officiating because they didn’t do x, y, or z. But what it’s really saying, logically, is that it’s never valid to complain about the officiating. Which is a fine thing to say, but why not just say that then?

    I think the motivation comes from the knowledge that, in your personal life, it’s generally more effective to focus on what you can control than complain about things outside your control.

  4. People often suggest we shouldn’t worry about the officiating too much because it usually doesn’t determine the outcome of the game. In my view, bad calls determine the outcome of the game all the time, but it’s still not clear we should really care very much.

    Football is entertainment. It also has a tremendous amount of luck in various forms: the bounce of the ball, the interaction of play calls, etc. Ref error is just another form of luck. It’s only a problem if the perception of unfairness damages the entertainment value.

    Along those lines, I think the trend towards more replay reviews is a mistake. It hurts the entertainment value by slowing down the game. Fairness isn’t the priority. The perception of fairness only matters insofar as it makes the game more entertaining. In moderation, bad calls can even make the game more fun, like a wrestler hitting the opponent with a chair when the ref’s back is turned.

  5. For those reasons, I don’t see officiating reform as a very important priority. There are, however, some interesting reasons that make it very difficult to achieve.

    First, there’s a collective action problem. As long as the officiating is merely incompetent and not crooked, it shouldn’t benefit one team over another in the long-term. Therefore, no one is incentivized to expend the resources to make it better.

    The only time someone gets worked up to make changes is when they get screwed over, but then they lack credibility because their complains are seen (rightly) as sour grapes. So in all, it is nearly impossible to have both motivation and credibility at the same time.

    The only exception is when the person who gets screwed over has such high status that they can take the credibility hit of sour grapes and still press forward. This is how replay got instituted in the Big 10 and eventually all of college football. Joe Paterno got pissed when Penn State ate a bunch of bad calls in one game and moved to add replay. He was able to succeed because he was arguably the most revered figure in college football (this was pre-scandal), so his cache trumped the sour grapes issue.



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