Monday, November 3, 2008

On a Totally Unrelated Note

Because election day will be consumed by politics out the whazoo I wanted to write about a very important topic that provided some heated debate at my office yesterday.

Do football referees have a cognitive bias towards media darlings?

To preface, I graduated from Texas A&M, and I have been an Aggie football fan ever since I was a little kid. This past Saturday night, ABC Sports showed the match up between two of my school’s archrivals: Texas Tech and the University of Texas. It’s a toss up which of these two teams we are supposed to hate more than the other each year. While Texas Tech won the game with some late game heroics, I felt that it was obvious that the calls heavily favored the Longhorns of the University of Texas.

For several years now, the Longhorns have consistently benefited from poor refereeing. However, I do not believe that there is any kind of conspiracy; I simply believe that all schools that have a recent history of being very good or happen to be media darlings receive better treatment by referees. Were I to watch a large number of games by USC or some other powerhouse I would expect to feel the same way. Furthermore, I do not believe that referees during the game are aware that they have a bias. There is simply a cognitive difficulty in seeing the game as it truly is when there is a preconceived notion of who is “supposed to win” the game.

In the NBA, it is generally accepted that star athletes get the benefit of the doubt and receive fewer penalties and their opponents are called for more penalties than reality would dictate. Players with bad reputations, such as Dennis Rodman and Ron Artest, often suffer more penalties than they ought to as well. I do not think this bias is intentional, it just simply is a product of preconceived notions. I see no reason why this same bias would not be extended to whole teams and other sports.

Having said that, I do not believe that this is simply an unpleasant fact that must be accepted. When I was young, I was your typical fan who always saw my own team as the one getting the short end of the stick. As an adult, I don’t see it that way. It has actually been quite some time since I have seen my team, the Texas A&M Aggies, face a significant number of bad calls.

My officemates, who just happen to be Longhorn fans, claim that my analysis is based on my bias against their team. But, in my defense, the only other team that I have accused of consistently receiving favorable refereeing was the Utah Jazz. When I finally met a Jazz fan in college from Salt Lake City and confronted him with my accusations that John Stockton built a career on the “moving pick” and roll, he laughed and said that he totally agreed with me.

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