June 12, 2010 -- June is a big month for sports fans. Tennis fans have the French Open, basketball fans have the NBA Finals, and hockey fans have the Stanley Cup Finals. This year, in addition, soccer fans have the World Cup starting June 12. 

But where there’s sports, there’s fire, with sports enthusiasts fanning the flames. This referee made a bad call, that referee missed an obvious call, and my team lost because of it, or managed to win in spite of it. Fairness in refereeing, it seems, is a rare thing indeed.

But although there is some non-anecdotal evidence of referee bias out there, sports fans are still biased when it comes to their favorite players and teams. Some bad calls, like the recent one that robbed Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga of a perfect game , are universally condemned. But as a Boston Celtics fan, do I trust my judgment in thinking that Celtics forward Kevin Garnett should not have been suspended for one game in the first round of this year’s playoffs? Am I correct to praise the NBA for rescinding one of Celtics center Kendrick Perkins’s technical fouls and thereby saving him from a one-game suspension? And if we fans are as biased as we seem, are there wider implications beyond the world of sports?

Watching the Watchmen

Before attacking the impartiality of referees who are, after all, paid to be impartial, it should be acknowledged that officiating is an inexact science. Figuring out if a runner is safe at first base can be difficult. So can deciding whether the offensive or the defensive basketball player is at fault when they get tangled up fighting for position in the low post. Mistakes hurt when they cost your team, but they still might just be mistakes.

Nonetheless, there are studies suggesting that referee bias does exist. One study looked at all regular season and playoff games from the 2002-03 through 2007-08 NBA seasons. In examining the play-by-play data from the roughly 7,000 basketball games, the researchers found evidence of three distinct referee biases: in favor of home teams, teams losing during games, and teams down in playoff series. But how did they tease out referee behavior from player behavior? For example, how do they know that home teams don’t simply play better at home, bolstered by their fans, or that losing teams don’t simply redouble their efforts to get back in a game or series?

The researchers controlled for player behavior by distinguishing between discretionary turnovers like travelling violations and offensive fouls (which require referee intervention) and non-discretionary turnovers like steals, lost balls, and shot clock violations (which require little or no referee action). They found that visiting teams and winning teams had significantly more discretionary turnovers, while there was no difference in non-discretionary turnovers, indicating referee bias in favor of home teams and losing teams.

Group Loyalty

Does this mean that sports fans are off the hook? Referees are biased, as we suspected all along? Hardly. For one thing, the biases identified above are not biases for or against specific teams, but rather, for teams in specific situations (i.e., at home or losing). These might result from the influence of the crowd. Alternately, as the authors of the NBA study suggest, it might stem from a conscious or unconscious desire to increase league profits by, for instance, extending playoff series. This is still problematic, but it is not blatant favoritism for one team or another.

A simple observation, however, should be sufficient to show that many fans are guilty of blatant favoritism: the prototypical fan on either side of any contest almost always seems to think referees are shafting his team, whether they are winning or losing, visiting or at home. If my team loses, it’s because of the refs; if they win, it’s in spite of the refs! This puts fans on the wrong side of the hard data exactly half the time, on average.

What makes people abandon objectivity and become sports fans? Quite simply, it’s fun. It’s one thing to watch and admire the skill and determination of talented players struggling to overcome their opponents. It’s quite another to cheer on your team of talented players in righteous battle against those bums from another city! Sports fans multiply their enjoyment by their identification with particular teams and athletes. If such group membership comes with a requirement of blind loyalty, where’s the harm?

Why It Matters

The odd soccer riot notwithstanding, being a sports fan is relatively innocuous, as long as one can remain objective in other, more important areas of life. Unfortunately, there is evidence that the sports fan mentality is widespread in a far more important arena: politics. Specifically, according to Associate Law Professor Ilya Somin, voters have a tendency to behave like sports fans.

The theory of rational ignorance states that because a single vote has very little chance of affecting the outcome of an election, voters have very little reason to become informed. Somin writes that those who nonetheless do become informed are likely to be political “fans” rooting for one “team” or another. Sports fans who acquire extensive information about their teams and players do so not in order to influence the outcome of games, but rather in order to increase the enjoyment they get from watching the games. According to Somin, political fans, also impotent when it comes to affecting outcomes, likewise become informed in order to maximize their enjoyment of political “games.” But like sports fans, their “information” tends to be biased, because pursuit of truth is not their primary motive.

What does this mean for democracy? If many voters are uninformed, and many of those who are informed are also biased, what hope is there for wise democratic decisions? Constitutional checks on what government can and can’t do are implicitly a check on voters, too. Somin suggests “making fewer decisions through the political system and more through free markets and civil society—where people have much stronger incentives to both seek out information and evaluate it at least somewhat rationally.” Simply put, in their own private lives, when their own hard earned dollars are at risk, people tend to make an effort to keep their biases in check. This is therefore a good argument for private, as opposed to collective, decision-making whenever possible.

Just for the record, though, the refs in the 2010 NBA Finals are clearly biased in favor of the Los Angeles Lakers. But the Boston Celtics are going to rise above it and win the series just the same.

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