Sunday, 22 April 2012

R is for... Referees

Who want to be a referee? It’s a question I think most sports fans have asked at one point or another. Referees or umpires get little praise when they do their job well, whereas every questionable decision is scrutinised to a high degree. In many sports they receive regular vocal abuse from the crowds, and on occasions have even received death threats after performing their job.

The human element

In an ideal world officials would never affect the outcome of the sporting contest they were presiding over, even if every decision they make isn’t perfect. However we all know that this doesn’t always happen; sometimes genuinely bad decisions are made which can have big consequences.

Many of the decisions referees make in sports are genuinely difficult. The laws of our sports can be interpreted in different ways, and many factors need to be weighed up in a short amount of time. For example, whilst an offside decision in football will usually be straight-forward, a mistimed tackle may be more difficult to judge; how much intent was there in the foul, was it dangerous, did it cause any damage, and did it deny a goal-scoring opportunity? All this needs to be weighed up quickly as the referee makes their decision in real-time.

As fans, we need to accept that referees aren’t perfect and sometimes will make decisions we disagree with. We have to believe that these officials are trying their best to be impartial at all times and are making the best decision given the information they have in all moments. As long as we have faith that they’re trying to do a good job, then that’s good enough for me.

Home bias

In 2007, a study of 5000 English Premier League games revealed that referees instinctively favour the home team in sports, to the extent that for every 10,000 extra people in the crowd the home team has the equivalent of a 0.1 goal advantage. This news didn’t come as much of a surprise to sports fans, with many believing that the study actually underestimated this effect. Further studies have also proved that decisions are affected by crowd noise, with officials more willing to give contentious decisions when the crowd is louder.

It’s my firm belief that this bias isn’t intentional in any way, but is purely created by crowd pressure. Outside forces clearly have an unfortunate influence on some decisions. As much as they’d like to believe they’re not affected by it, umpires don’t like to receive abuse from thousands of people in a crowd, so subconsciously this might swing a lineball decision one way in an umpire's mind. This is clearly represented in interstate matches in the AFL where many close calls are made by the umpires, and where the free kick count is often heavily weighted towards the home team.

The technological debate

The use of technology in sport to assist officials has become more widespread in the past decade; however some sports have embraced the use of technology more than others. Tennis and cricket have perhaps had the biggest changes, with both sports implementing review systems where the players are given a couple of reviews to challenge decisions they’re unhappy with. In both sports I’d say the change has been a success, although perhaps more so in tennis than cricket where there’s less grey area with the decisions. The review systems have also shown how consistently good the umpires in both sports are, with the majority of decisions challenged staying with the umpire’s call.

Football (soccer) has been particularly reluctant to use technology, however a series of high profile referee errors that could’ve been easily been overturned have led FIFA to look closely at how technology could help their officials make the right calls. Personally, I think the simplest and best solution is to use video replays. It’s relatively inexpensive, wouldn’t take too much time, and in nearly all cases the correct decision will be reached.

In general, I think the officials do a really good job in our sports and should be praised more often than they are. I understand why fans get frustrated when they feel decisions don’t go their way, but we have to hope questionable decisions are balanced out in the long term and give the officials some leniency. As for technology, I think that anything that can help ensure the correct decision is reached more often is a good thing, provided it doesn’t take up too much time and affect the flow of the sport.

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