They don’t all need glasses. But if you always suspected basketball referees are biased — well, you’re right, according to a couple of professors who’ve studied the matter.
Refs favor the home team, the academics say. They’re big on “make-up” calls. They make more calls against teams in the lead, and the discrepancy grows if the game is on national TV.
The professors studied 365 college games during the 2004-05 season and found that refs had a terrific knack for keeping the foul count even, regardless of which team was more aggressive.
Exhibit A: The 2005 Final Four meeting between Illinois and Louisville. The Illini, known for being more aggressive defensively, got whistled for the first seven fouls. By the end of the game, the foul count was Louisville 13, Illinois 12. The Illini won 72-57.
Results like this were the norm across all the games the professors studied from that season — from the Big East to the ACC to the Big Ten and all 63 NCAA tournament games. The take-home message for coaches: The more aggressive your teams the better because, in the end, the foul count is going to be about even no matter what.
It helps explain, the professors say, why college basketball has gotten increasingly physical over the past 25 years.
“Part of the reason for the study came from something my coach used to tell me,” said study co-author Kyle Anderson, a visiting professor at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, who played at Division III Knox College. “He said a team can come in and push and shove and grab and hold, and by the end of the game, or end of the half, they’ve only got one or two more fouls because officials kind of get tired of calling it.”
Among the key findings, which were published The Journal of Sports Sciences earlier this year:
• The probability of a foul being called on the visiting team was 7 percent higher than on the home team.
• When the home team is leading, the probability of the next foul being called on them was about 6.3 percentage points higher than when the home team was trailing. The professors also cited an earlier study that concluded there were more calls against teams ahead in games on national TV versus those ahead in locally televised games. Calling fouls against the leading team tends to keep games closer, the studies said.
• The bigger the difference in fouls between the two teams playing, the more likely it was that the next call would come against the team with fewer fouls. When the home team had five or more fouls than the visiting team, there was a 69 percent chance the visiting team would be whistled for the next foul.
As part of their 365-game sample, the professors looked at 93 games played on neutral courts, and the numbers remained largely the same when it came to leveling the foul count.
“There’s something to it,” said Irv Brown, a former official who worked six Final Fours and was supervisor of officials for the Western Athletic and Big Sky conferences. “If you’re looking at the board and one team has a lot more fouls, you probably look a little harder to do something, subconsciously.”
Brown said he used to experiment and try not to look at the scoreboard, but human nature dictates that referees will. Same for home-court advantage. Try as they might, there’s no way a referee can completely block out thousands of fans yelling at him from close range.
“As an official, you get the reputation that you’re tough on the road, and that’s what you want,” Brown said in a telephone interview last week. “But it takes a lot of years. You have to get established. Some guys who aren’t established, you’ll see them out there, trying to take some of the heat off, trying to take care of the home crowd.”
Anderson said he talked to a number of referees as part of the research and the majority said “you’re crazy. We don’t do this.”
“But a few others said, ‘Yeah, I try to make it even out,’ ” Anderson said.
The NCAA asked for a copy of the study, and Anderson said he hasn’t received any negative feedback — at least not yet.
The professors looked only at first halves because teams committing intentional fouls while in catch-up mode at the end of games skewed the second-half results.
Anderson and his co-author, David Pierce of Ball State, made it clear in the study that referees aren’t intentionally trying to influence foul counts.
“We’d like them to have no memory and strictly call what’s going on on the court,” Anderson said. “But part of this is, if I’m a ref, I want everyone to think I’m fair and if I call 10 fouls on one team and two on the other, people are going to think something’s going on here. It’s sort of subconscious. And it points out one of the biggest problems with basketball is that it’s a very hard game to officiate.”