About a year ago, I wrote a piece for Deadspin that linked anecdotal evidence with peer-reviewed literature on how referee behavior is impacted by a home bias.
To sum, referees are susceptible to exact same fears and pressures that we would expect them to be, and that as a result, the overwhelming majority of the time, judgement calls favor the home team when the game is on the line.
Fast forward to this past Friday night, when I received an unpleasant reminder about how painful but predictable this behavior can be. For the last decade or so, I’ve moonlighted as an assistant football coach (with my father Tom, the head coach) at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School (L-S). On Friday, I had the opportunity to try and help out during the team’s Division 2 North semifinal playoff contest on the road at North Andover.
Before getting to the moment in question, let’s start with a play early in the contest. In statistics, it is always nice to have a control group with which we can compare the effects of a treatment or intervention of interest. Luckily enough, in the L-S North Andover game, a play from early in the first half provides a perfect comparison for a play that occurs later.
Midway through the first quarter, North Andover’s quarterback lofted a sideways pass, which, after being batted down, was whistled dead as an incomplete pass. Notice both the audible whistle and the official at the bottom of the screen that runs into signal as incomplete.
Alternatively, the official could have ruled that the pass was actually a lateral, in which case the ball and play would still be live.
Keep this in mind when action moves to the final seconds of the third quarter, with North Andover clinging to a 6-0 lead. At this point, it’s also worth noting after after the first half shutout, the hosts had now gone more than 14 consecutive quarters without allowing a point. Points in this game were critical and hard to come by, even more-so considering the seemingly gail-force winds at field level.
On a third and long, North Andover goes back to nearly the identical play you saw earlier. This time, the result is different, as shown below. Notice the lack of any whistle, no signal of incompletion, and the L-S player that picks up an apparent lateral and turns it into a touchdown.
One aspect of the video that was cutoff is that the referees on the field actually signaled for the touchdown, to the point that L-S’s extra point team came onto the field.
Not so fast, however!
After some commentary from the sidelines, the officials decided to huddle up in the middle of the field. The decision loomed large; the call on the field would have given L-S the chance for a 7-6 advantage, and it had also drawn a lengthy choir of boos from the hometown North Andover crowd and sideline. After three or four minutes of debate, the group decided to overturn the touchdown!
According to the head official who spoke with the L-S coaches, including myself, on the sideline, the basis of the decision to rule an incomplete pass was that the referee on the North Andover sideline blew his whistle and signaled an incomplete pass. Even if this decision had been the incorrect call and the pass had been a lateral, this meant that the action on the field had to end immediately.
Given the video evidence, such an explanation is difficult to believe. On the video above, it’s obvious that no whistle had been blown. Further, here’s a second clip (no audio) that includes the sideline official on North Andover’s sideline, who is clearly not making an incomplete pass motion.
At this point, think back to the same type of play from earlier in the game. The same official, given a nearly identical play, blew his whistle and gave the signal for an incomplete pass!
After giving the opposite call later in the game, however, the official reversed his course. What happened?
Indeed, it appears the social pressure of being the primary person responsible for giving the away team a crucial touchdown was too overwhelming to consider. Had the touchdown stood, that same official would have no doubt spent the remaining 11 minutes of the contest on the North Andover sideline hearing an unending banter from the crowd and coaches.
In the Deadspin piece, I asked that if pushgate was at Gillette Stadium, would the referees have had the guts to call a penalty on the Patriots?
Relatedly, if this contest had been at Lincoln-Sudbury, would the referees have had the gumption to overturn an L-S touchdown?
For the same reason that officials almost never make such controversial calls against the home team, the alternative decision, in this case to overturn the touchdown and appease the crowd, was all too easy and predictable of an out.
And as usual, it was the road that was taken.
-Despite two trips inside the red zone from L-S, North Andover completed the shutout, holding on for a 12-0 win.
-It’s easy – and tempting – to pass blame to the officiating crew. That’s not the point of this. Like I wrote at the end of the Deadspin article, the officials are behaving exactly as we expect them to, which is the same as most of us would act in that situation. Things like instant replay, however, have helped tremendously, at least in professional sports, as far as reducing bias in favor of the home team (e.g., the Scorecasting chapter on fumble recovery rates in the NFL, or the PitchFx developments in MLB).
-I’ve watched the play in question several times. It’s 50-50 whether or not its a lateral or a forward pass. For what it’s worth, at the end of the game, the North Andover chain crew confided that from their direct and optimal viewpoint, it was definitively a lateral. Hearing this, the sideline judge on the L-S sideline told the L-S coaches, ‘oops. I guess it should have been 6-6.’
-L-S plays in the Dual County League, and North Andover plays in the Merrimack Valley Conference (MVC). Per state rules, the referees for the L-S contest with North Andover were officials from the MVC. There’s the real conflict of interest and an actual conspiracy theory, if you are looking for one.
-Hard not to think of this great commentary on a related play (more EMass officials!)
-If you were wondering why there was a flag on the play, North Andover was penalized for an illegal formation.
-Lastly, I stole the headline from Garicano et al’s article on refereeing in British soccer. It’s one of my favorites – give it a read!
Great Job, Mike