Obstructed view: Home bias & controversial calls in sports

What do the following plays have in common?

Obstruction, Game 3 of the 2013 World Series, Red Sox vs. Cardinals

Pushgate, 2013 regular season, Patriots vs. Jets

Replacement Refs debacle, 2012 regular season, Packers vs. Seahawks

Hand of Frog, 2009 World Cup qualifying, Ireland vs. France

Tuck Rule, 2001 AFC Divisional Round, Raiders vs. Patriots

Jeffrey Maier catch, 1996 ALCS, Orioles vs. Yankees

The Call, 1985 World Series Game 6, St. Louis vs. Kansas City

Mike Renfro catch, 1979 AFC title game, Houston vs. Pittsburgh

Interference, 1975 World Series, Red Sox vs. Reds

Beyond simply a list of nine highly controversial calls, each of the above plays has something in common: the game more or less came down to a referee needing to make a judgement call or decision. And on each of the judgement calls, the referees favored on the side of the home team.

Specifically, Game 3 of the 2013 World Series, instantly labeled an instant classic after St. Louis escaped with a win on an obstruction call against Boston’s Will Middlebrooks, got me thinking. While much of the discussion the following day centered around the obstruction rule itself, or whether or not referees/officials should swallow their whistles and not “decide the game“, I thought of something else.

What if that same game, situation, and play had happened at Fenway in the top of the 9th? Would Jim Joyce have had the gumption to call obstruction against the home team, and not in favor of it? My guess is no, and here’s why.

In all the examples provided above, officials’ judgement in the decisive moments of big games erred in favor of the home team. Did I cherry-picked that list? Well, nine of 11 eligible (non-neutral site games) contests on this controversial games list, six of 7 games on this one, and another six of 7 on this one all favored the home team. If you are curious, one that often comes up on these lists in favor of the road team was the Brett Hull skate in the crease. Also, not that in compiling those numbers, I also took a writers liberty of not counting the 5th down game (Colorado @ Missouri), because that game is controversial for referee incompetence, and not referee judgement.

Moreover, home bias on behalf of the referees is more than anecdotal, and there are several great statistical studies which present significant evidence that a home bias exists in sports. For example, three UK researchers studied home field advantage in professional soccer, and found that home teams playing in stadia with running tracks (i.e., with a separation between fans and game action) received more penalties than home teams playing on pitches without running tracks. This suggests that referees were less likely to call infractions against the home team when pressure from within the stadium was higher.

Another study also used professional soccer, this time looking at the injury time allotted at the end of regulation. Injury time, of course, should be about the easiest decision a soccer referee can make. The researchers, however, found that “referees systematically favor home teams by shortening close games where the home team is ahead, and lengthening close games where the home team is behind.” 

Of course, results from professional soccer may not carry over to other sports. Scorecasting, however, has some excellent examples of referees exhibiting a home bias in other sports. Baseball umpires’ balls and strikes (516 more strikeouts called on away teams, and 195 more walks awarded to home teams than there otherwise should be, thanks to the home plate umpire’s bias) and NFL player fumble recover rates before and after replay (home teams (before replay) enjoyed a healthy 12 percent advantage in recovering fumbles. After instant replay was installed, that advantage simply vanished), are two great examples.

Home bias on behalf of referees, umpires, and officials is very likely real. As a result, I don’t think that the fact that so many controversial calls favor the home team is a coincidence; it only makes sense that when the stage is the brightest or the calls are of the biggest magnitude, an officials’ decision might err in favor of the home team.

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