Referees: the scapegoat in black?

In a wide range of sport events like Premiership football, world championship boxing, Olympic ice skating and gymnastics – the talking point at the end of competition often focuses the skill of the officials and not that of the contestants. Referees, umpires and judges can be the target of unrestrained complaints about seemingly unfair decisions and outcomes.

However, the appointed officials in such high-profile events are always highly trained individuals who know their sports inside out. Their performance is scrutinised and evaluated by their peers and superiors, and their future selection is jeopardised if they are deemed to have made questionable decisions. They are thus highly motivated to perform well and maintain unblemished reputations for objectivity and accuracy.

Why, then, do we so often find ourselves disappointed and angry with their decisions, blaming them for what we see as inexplicable, biased judgments? One view is that even the most knowledgeable, well-intentioned officials may be unable to fulfill the complex functions asked of them.

Studies suggest, for example, that it’s impossible for a referee’s assistant to judge many offside incidents, as seeing the ball leaving one footballer’s foot at the same time as another player’s carefully timed run is outside the realm of human capability.  Other factors such as lack of Superman’s speed and the difficulty of positioning might exacerbate the problem.

It is also conceivable that, consciously or not, officials are motivated to please the crowd.  Judging a skater’s routine in a totally objective manner will be very difficult in the face of enthusiastic vocal support for local heroes.

And a study of the German equivalent of Premier League football referees found more time added to games when the home team is behind by a goal, as well as fewer decisions in favour of the home side when the crowd is separated from the pitch by a running track.  Even the most objective and confident of referees may not be immune to information conveyed by the crowd.  Fifty thousand voices shouting ‘handball!’ in unison might just sway a referee’s 50:50 decision. 

Finally, one possibility is that we are the ones who are biased. Football managers giving post-match interviews rarely complain about referee decisions after a win.  It’s mainly when their result is unpalatable that they insult the referee’s intelligence and even honesty.

We humans are known to make self-serving attributions when explaining negative outcomes, focusing on factors that are outside our personal control –  bad weather, a poor pitch or a visually challenged referee. But when we succeed, we praise our own skill, training, strategy and creativity.

Further evidence for fan bias is that we believe that referees make kinder decisions for our opponents than ourselves – but obviously we can’t all be right about that. Thus it’s difficult to resist criticising officials after our favourite athletes fail to win, but it just might be worth examining our own motives before dishing out the blame.

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