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Referees and The Confirmation Bias

Seen this elsewhere today?

Referees. Eh? Who’d be one? Not me anyway. I watch football, play football, love football but would never want to put myself in the position that thousands of well wishing men & women do. They are vital to the function of the sport and a good referee can make a game better. A bad referee, on the other hand, can truly ruin the game and in some extreme cases the sport itself (Calciopoli). So, in writing this I do not demean, devalue or demonise an entire profession but offer my, lay, opinion on one of the most important facets of the sport.

As Brian Clough famously put it to John Motson  (in relation to Televisions coverage of Football):

“I think what you do to referees is absolutely criminal, I do honestly and I think the standard you feel that should be coming from Referees at the moment is absolutely incredible…he makes a decision in 5 seconds or 2 seconds or 1 second or whatever it is, in the heat of the moment with 22 players, with 33,000 shouting and bellowing. All I’m saying is that you don’t make that point strongly enough. It should be overemphasised how hard it is to Referee a match.”

However, Referee’s have a flaw one that all of us possess and that is Confirmation Bias, it influences their decisions before they make it and makes it more difficult to change their minds despite the evidence in front of them, what can be done about it?

(In this article I will be quoting from an academic article by Raymond S. Nickerson of Tufts University.) Each time a quote appears indented it is from said study.

What Is Confirmation Bias?

Confirmation bias is the cognitive process whereby we reinforce our opinions by systematically accept what confirms what we already believe and discredit or point blank ignore evidence to the contrary. The problem this causes is that it can allow narratives to develop that reinforce stereotypes that may not be true. If that went over your head ask yourself; are Wolves a dirty team? If you haven’t gone in depth and go by the media’s depiction then the answer is yes. Conversely are Bolton a dirty team under Owen Coyle? If you don’t have a strong opinion you’re more likely to assume not, but in the Premier League fair play table the trotters are 5 places behind but nothing is said about it.

What this causes is an extra emphasis on Wolves’ dirty play and no emphasis on Bolton’s, this is a perceived correlation whereby:

“A form of stereotyping involves believing that specific behaviours are more common among…members of a particular group”

This would back up what we have seen, why was this yellow? Probably because it was John Carew who is not ‘known’ for horror tackles unlike, say, Karl Henry is now. Wolves’ players are going to be held by a different standard than those who play in the same league as them which is staggeringly unfair but falls within this illusory correlation that because they play for Wolves they are more physical. The reason for this is not just a spate of bad tackles, which of course there have been a few but also because

“Unusual behaviour by people in distinctive groups is more salient and easily remembered than similar behaviour who are not…of that group”

It is mental gymnastics that we will remember the fouls of Wolves to tally with what we already believe but conveniently forget moments like this.

Johnny Giles wrote an excellent article recently(which I didn’t fully agree with but that’s the way with debate) in which he broached the subject of how he was remembered:

“I took the decision that if I was to embark on a career in which honest comment was essential, in which I might have to condemn bad tackles, for example, then I would have to come clean about my well-earned reputation among my fellow professionals. It was pretty embarrassing, having to tarnish my own image in the Daily Express. Some of my friends thought I was mad to do it and warned me that, in future, I would be known only for the bad tackles, that the creative play would be forgotten.”

So despite a ‘well-earned reputation’ it took a nationally published article to refute what had been ‘known’ for decades. That is the way with confirmation bias unless you’re conscious of it you will be prone to fall into it and it takes an explicit contradiction for you to change your mind, of course some never will.

Specifically, Why Referees

Confirmation bias is universal and it touches on subjects I’ve already broached (Revisionism) as an impartial observer – as referees must be – it undermines their standing. Referees hold a unique position within the game, they have sole power over the course of a football game, their mistakes change matches and are widely publicised. He succeeds or fails on his own judgement and if his judgement is flawed then so is the game. Take for instance the recent case of Nemanja Vidic and Marc Albrighton. Albrighton had gone to the crowd after scoring a goal and promptly was booked, Nemanja Vidic did the very same in the same match – in the same half – and was not. Mike Dean said that Vidic was ‘pushed’ into the crowd. He came to the decision that Vidic shouldn’t be booked (and then dismissed) and fitted the facts to confirm this. Watch the incident again, Vidic is clearly not ‘pushed’ anywhere until Rio does his usual celebration and at that point he is already in the crowd. By the laws of the game and precedence in the match itself Vidic should have been off but Dean made his – incorrect – decision and stood by it. There is evidence to this effect almost every week;

Sometimes it’s because the player isn’t ‘known’ for that :

“If it was Lee (Cattermole) he would have been sent off…It is a strange one to give a yellow card for that” – Steve Bruce –

Sometimes it’s because the result of an accurate decision is unpalatable:

“Having seen it again from my armchair several times in slow motion and from different angles I can see that it was a red-card offence.” –Howard Webb –

In this particular instance it is shown that a desirable outcome can be preferred to the truth. Which as a keeper of the rules of the game is unacceptable for a Referee.

Mark Clattenburg dismissed every Tottenham player that surrounded him when discussing the controversial Nani goal in October; however he did allow Rio Ferdinand to join his conversation. I cannot know for certain but it would certainly seem that Rio was providing confirmation of what he already believed, why else would he allow the United player (not even a Captain) come that close during a conversation with his assistant?

“The idea that people tend to expose themselves more to information sources that share their beliefs than to those that do not has had considerable credibility among social psychologists.”


Why? Referees

As indicated above it is all well and good to judge a Referee from the comfort of my home with the ability to pause, rewind and review incidents on the fly, there is currently no way for a Referee to be 100% accurate, 100% of the time. However Referee’s are placed in a position whereby the influences of confirmation bias are exacerbated not alleviated. By placing the referee in a position where they must make a decision immediately then they are more likely to stick by it, this is called ‘the Primacy Effect’:

“When a person must draw a conclusion on the basis of information acquired and integrated over time, the information acquired early in the process is likely to carry more weight than that acquired later”

If a Referee must make a decision there and then, the conclusion he comes to will hold more weight than any subsequent evidence, furthermore:

“Once a belief or opinion has been formed, it can be very resistive to change, even in the face of fairly compelling evidence that it is wrong.”

Also the position of power that Referees find themselves in can be a problem in and of itself. The referee’s who we see week in and week out are the elite of each division and as such that comes with an ego. The demeanour of Mark Clattenburg as Heurelho Gomes questioned what was going on at Old Trafford is the extreme example of how this can show itself.

Being placed in the position to make the decisions in a football game does not lend itself to fallibility, if a Referee were seen to waver over his decisions he would not be long for the professional game. Consider the recent (extreme) example in Scotland where the Referee (Dougie McDonald) awarded a penalty, when in reality the Goalkeeper had touched the ball away, he immediately realised his error but rather than admit it consulted with his linesman and then indicated a different result. This isn’t uncommon, what is though is that after the game the reason he gave for the change was that he had been heavily influenced by his assistant and not that he had realised his own error. The assistant in question – Steven Craven – resigned after the facts came to light as he was disgruntled with the handling of the situation. Why did the referee not just admit his mistake? It would seem that his decision was based on self-preservation and that he identified that concocting a story about his linesman was less damaging than admitting that at first instance he was incorrect.

What does that say about the mindset of a professional referee that when confronted with being wrong it is preferable to invent a lie rather than admit the mistake, how likely is it then that a Referee will accept conflicting information if the result is so abhorrent:

“Friedrich (1993) argued that “ our inference processes are first and foremost pragmatic, survival mechanisms and secondarily truth detection strategies”

It would certainly hold that the mistake, actions and subsequent strike in Scotland bear this out.

The main issue I have with Confirmation Bias in this context is the narratives it can allow to develop. Certain players will develop reputation which will unfortunately distort their actions beyond what has actually happened. This leads to a disparity in the game which should not be tolerated it can lead to a different set of results that given the finely tuned nature of league football could be the difference between promotion/relegation and all the rewards/pitfalls of both. Over the course of a match one or two decisions will not have a profound effect, over 38 games however if those decisions are based on and enforce a bias then that can have a cumulative effect far greater than it initially seems.

Can We Fix the ‘Problem’?

In terms of eradicating the bias? no. It is universal and probably evident in this article denouncing it. What we can do though is acknowledge it. Acknowledge there is a problem and take steps to mitigate it. However, as we have seen the rules of football are quite resistant to change and particularly in adding/removing layers of protection, especially around Referee’s. To admit there is a problem brings the role of the Referee into sharp focus and as already mentioned it is already an extremely hard job at all levels of football world-wide. One must only look at the paltry ban provided to Tresor Mputu for his shameful attack on a referee to see that the protection of Referee’s is not the current priority in Football. In my opinion that should have merited a life-time ban.

However when it comes to contentious, game changing decisions there must be more of an emphasis on right rather than belief. As football has become a Billion dollar industry the price of mistakes are too large now to simply ignore. So what can we do?

It has been shown that:

“ the tendency to use [confirmation bias] can be reduced if people are asked to consider alternatives, but that they tend not to consider them spontaneously”

In this regard it would take a review to come to the ‘best’ decision of course given what has been shown before this probably should not be done by the official himself as having come to the decison independently he is more likely to ignore evidence to the contrary. It should, therefore, be the remit of a third party a qualified or senior/retired Referee who could review the video evidence and advise if anything was missed/misinterpreted in the initial instance. So yes, I am advocating the use of Video Evidence and systematic video review. It is used in virtually every other international sport extensively without issue. I do not of course advocate it’s use for every single refereeing decision but as said before those which are game changing. Goals, Penalties, Red Cards all must be reviewed if they are contentious.

Of course this is an imperfect solution as the word ‘contentious’ would be open to interpretation and interpretation is already the problem. However replacing a flawed system with a less flawed system is better in any circumstance. It’s not just a case of modernising the sport( as that’s a different discussion altogether) but this would remove a significant proportion of human error from the game because:

“Much of the discussion of confirmation bias is predicated on the assumption that…people have been interested in determining truth or falsity….But determining truth or falsity is not the only, or necessarily primary,objective…. Another possibility is that of guarding against the making of certain types of mistakes”.

If we acknowledge the problem and act to prevent it perhaps a ‘reducer’ from Cattermole could be as equally punished as a ‘mistake’ from Fabregas. If we forcibly divorce ourselves from our unintentionally pre-conceived notions of what a player meant to do and act according to what they actually did the game would be fairer as a result. Also if we acknowledge that Referee’s are human and therefore flawed, we can accept that they need help to determine if the ball crossed the line or was prevented from doing so by a hand.

Also, by admitting fallibility it is less likely that Referee’s can develop an Ego like Mark Clattenburg has, in fact his ego could exacerbate the problem as:

“In general, people tend to express a higher degree of confidence than is justified by the accuracy of their performance….[Researchers] refer to the confidence that people feel for highly fallible performance as the illusion of validity.”

If we provide a second stage of scrutiny to a Referee’s performance it would lead to a more thorough (and accurate) review of decisions. I’m aware that this would slow the game down somewhat and that by sometimes ‘letting the game flow’ is a praise for a Referee rather than an indictment. Though by limiting the decisions to the fundamentals of the game (goals, player’s violent actions and penalties) we would get less debate over the Refereeing of games (such as this article) and more on the sport itself and perhaps it would prevent accusations of bias and make corruption that bit harder as you would have to corrupt two officials rather than one.


Of course I acknowledge that quoting extensively from one article is an almost text-book definition of confirmation bias however, I have chosen, read and digested an article which presents both the pros and the cons and it is a piece that admits that:

“Can we assess the merits of our own opinions impartially? Is it possible to put a belief that one holds in balance with an opposing belief… and give them a fair weighing? I doubt that it is. But that is not to say we cannot hope…to do better than we typically do in that regard.”

If this has whetted your appetite for such a debate I encourage you to read the article quoted throughout. Finally, I reiterate that this is not a treatise against Referee’s, what it is is a realisation that they are only Human and we need to provide support rather than condemnation and instead of singing ‘Fergies Rent-Boy’ sing ‘Damn Psychological Social Conventions’ it’s not as pithy but it just might be a bit more accurate.

Chris McQuade can be followed on Twitter @kipp9

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  1. Brian

    January 15, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    I don’t believe you can have replay on a subjective call. I have reffed for 8 years now. We are constantly told in some of the classes/lectures etc. that I attend that a referee needs to feel the game. For example on giving cards–We are told we need to feel the game. There are times when a situation is a 100% yellow/red but what about all of those times when it is not? I can’t imagine a card being reviewable during a game–there are times when the game/the player needs a card and times when it/they do not. This call can only be made by the official on the field. I have no problem for replay on non-subjective calls (goal/ball over endline, who hit someone in a fight/etc). It is the same in the NFL/NHL/Baseball/Tennis. Only non-subjective calls can be challenged (touchdown/goal/homerun/ball in or out)

  2. Dave C

    January 12, 2011 at 9:53 am

    Interesting (if overly-long) article. Couldn’t read the whole thing though, so apologies if I’m not sure if the article offers any insight beyond “referees are only human, humans have inherent subconscious biases” (i.e. what, if anything, can we actually do about it?).

    Just gotta disagree with this passage though:

    Sometimes it’s because the result of an accurate decision is unpalatable:

    “Having seen it again from my armchair several times in slow motion and from different angles I can see that it was a red-card offence.” –Howard Webb –

    In this particular instance it is shown that a desirable outcome can be preferred to the truth. Which as a keeper of the rules of the game is unacceptable for a Referee.

    I don’t think this quote from Webb is showing what you claim it shows. It doesn’t suggest that the “desired” outcome is more preferred than the unpalateable truth. Webb is simply stating the obvious fact that referees acting in real-time sometimes make decisions that can be shown to be wrong when you review the evidence multiple times in slow-mo from multiple angles. I don’t think anything he says suggests that refs sometimes choose to make a “preferable/desired” call rather than the “accurate” call.

    • Dave C

      January 12, 2011 at 11:25 am

      Ok, I’ve read the whole thing now, and I see you do address the question of “what can be done about it”.

      I think this is a pretty great article – although it’s a little long, I like the relatively intellectual tone (by football standards 😉 ). The idea of confirmation bias is pretty relevant to areas beyond sport too – I’m thinking in particular of issues like racism/sexism, news media, politics and all sorts of stuff.

      I think I generally agree that introducing video-replay would be a good idea (I envision it somewhat akin to a tennis/NFL challenge system). An issue I still have with that idea though is: what happens when you want to challenge a decision that did not result in a stoppage of play? eg if the ball crosses the line for a goal (or a corner/throw-in) and the referee does not give the goal/corner/throw-in. The game could consequently continue without stoppage for several minutes. How do you challenge this? Do you wait to the next stoppage (which could be several minutes away) and then call the whole play back? Or do you somehow stop the play (and then what if the referee is proved right)?

      Also, another thought – everyone is using this article as a starting point to argue about the recent Man Utd-Liverpool game. But does this really show any confirmation bias (and how would we know if this is the case)? As far as I can see, the debateable topics were the Berba penalty, and the Gerrard red-card.

      Since Berba already has a reputation as somewhat of a diver, surely confirmation bias would cause the ref to deny his penalty, since the explanation that he dived would be more in fitting with pre-conceived notions about Berba?

      Likewise, the Gerrard sending off (which as far as I can see was completely justified) doesn’t seem to be relevant to the idea of confirmation bias. Since Gerrard seems to have the reputation (like John Terry) of being some brave, lion-hearted, roy-of-the-rovers heroic English talisman, wouldn’t confirmation bias simply lead to the ref brushing off his foul as being simply “committed” and “full-blooded” and just give him the yellow card (this seems to have been the approach with England captains since the days of Shearer).

  3. Nick O

    January 11, 2011 at 6:48 pm

    I think the solution is rather easy in this day and age: any foul where there is a penalty given/red card handed out can be overturned by a “fifth” official up in a replay booth. I understand there may still be some subjectiveness, but it would certainly rule out blatant dives and when you can see something in slow motion it obviously becomes a much easier decision. Also, where there are such dives, a player would be sent off/suspended for future matches.

    As someone mentioned before me, this would take the same amount of time that it currently does to get the matter sorted out on the field anyway, so why not have some sort of a replay system where the overrule would come down almost instantaneously.

    We’re talking millions and millions of dollars with some of these decisions. They need to be right.

  4. Matt Johnston

    January 11, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    Chris, I am a referee (working at senior/premier level
    youth level and looking to advance) and I can tell you that the
    decision making referees have to make in games is harder than
    anything I have done in my personal and professional life. I admit
    that referees, just like any one else, have a confirmation bias and
    I also know that the best among us try to overcome that bias. Among
    the referees I work with most, you can see those who work at it and
    those who don’t. I don’t think, as you say, it can be fixed, nor
    should we try. We can hold a mirror up to the problem and instruct
    referees how to avoid or minimize the effects. For senior level
    referees or those moving up the competition ranks to work higher
    level games, such a training effort is possible. The problem I see
    is that suggest putting into place a system that is less imperfect
    than the system that currently operates. You point out the problem
    with a system of video evidence, i.e. the definition of
    contentious. But implementing a system with a significant
    interpretation problem already built in all but guarantees failure.
    I agree with you that video evidence of the single most important
    event in football, whether a goal has been scored, must be
    implemented, but I dare say putting video review into other aspects
    of the game will create unforseen problems. Still, I think this a
    brilliant piece (and I did read the whole thing). Well

  5. R2Dad

    January 11, 2011 at 1:56 pm

    Professional referees should not be having this problem, and certainly not on a regular basis. In addition to the ego element, perhaps the “ref as friend” trend has exacerbated the situation? As a referee myself, I have a bigger conflict when my eyes tell me one thing and my ears contradict what I’ve seen (e.g. a defender scarcely touches a shot that balloons over, a tackle appears legal but the attacker is howling in pain). Sometimes the 6 eyes on the field are too far away, at the wrong angle, or get blocked during important moments. It just happens, and without the 4th official to review, it will continue to.

  6. james

    January 11, 2011 at 11:29 am

    Time to bring in instant replays with the 4th official being given the authority to overrule the referee. For the time it took to sort out the penalty with all the players questioning the referee instant replay could have been used efectively. Especially for a penalty since the game is stopped anyway why not get it right.

  7. jmansor

    January 11, 2011 at 9:32 am

    Seems like it would be easy to stop diving if the FA would just review after the game. Don’t change the result, but ban that player for 3 games. I think it would really cut down on diving and make referees job easier.

    • Chris McQuade

      January 11, 2011 at 9:35 am

      If it happened in the FA cup final, Man Utd have a cup and Berbs gets a paltry meaningless ban. Records won’t show anything else.

      The result matters, accuracy matters.

      • R2Dad

        January 11, 2011 at 1:43 pm

        If the 4th official had the ability to review fouls called by the referee (but not call his own fouls), play need not be stopped and ref authority would remain intact.

  8. soccerfiesta

    January 11, 2011 at 8:10 am

    They should be respected for the difficult job they do but still a few go out of there way to mess up matches and allow players who have been known to play all forms of pranks to influence their decisions.

  9. Earl Reed

    January 11, 2011 at 7:59 am

    I think this is an excellent piece. I don’t think there is much that can be done about it, besides the typical evaluation that is likely done for referees. In my mind, I prefer a “large” sporting event (ManUtd v Liverpool would constitute this) to be less officiated. Obviously referees have to make some tough decisions, but it has to be clear-cut in a big game. You can’t be calling a Pass Interference on a hand check in the NFL, but if the guy is dragged down by the shirt, that’s a different story.

    A call is exacerbated whenever it occurs in the area, and obviously most referees hold a higher standard when it comes to calling a penalty. If it were a Blackburn v West Ham game, and that were Carlton Cole diving, 99/100 times the referee would laugh.

    I think your reference to the Italian scandal is something worth noting for sure. My main thought is that Manchester United got a pretty tough 3rd round draw. It wasn’t out of the question to see Liverpool succeed. Is it beyond the realm of possibility that the FA could choose a referee for a match who is known to be a bit friendly to a side like ManUtd? Or the opposite end…would a referee like Howard Webb feel pressure (coerced or not), knowing that losing ManUtd from the competition costs the FA, to call the game for ManUtd? I think either of those is possible, though in a very small percentage.

    Having said that, the penalty call by Webb was extremely troublesome, and the Lord only knows what exactly went through his mind when he pointed to the spot.

    • Chris McQuade

      January 11, 2011 at 8:14 am

      Well Earl,

      When choosing Referee’s I believe the FA appoint the most qualified/senior Referee to the more important games. This is why Webb officiates most of the big games on a PL weekend. To think that the FA would ever appoint a Referee based on his supposed bias is ludicrous.

      On the seperate point, perhaps if it was a less high profile game the ‘safer’ option may have been chosen but that is all conjecture what needs to be done is the ‘correct’ decision and if a replay aids that then it is necessary.

      Finally, the next time Berbs goes down from contact and it’s a stonewaller perhaps the thought ‘he’s a diver’ will enter the officials head that day and a legitimate penalty will be denied. 2 wrongs don’t make a right but Berbs has a reputation now.

      • Earl Reed

        January 11, 2011 at 8:39 am

        Ludicrous? Absolutely. Beyond past precedent? Obviously not, based on Calciopoli. Definitely better to be a dolt than a crook.

        As far as replay goes, even the NFL has stood fast against replay challenges based on penalties involving an official’s subjectivity, and they seem to be the most advanced in American sports in embracing technology. You would need an outside official to override the on-field official in the case of the penalty award, and that in itself could lead to further cries of foul play (for instance, can a 5th official stop the flow of play after replay shows what should have been a penalty or red card?).

        Mistakes are mistakes, and I do think Webb got a poor view of the incident. It’s amazing that, in the same season, you’ve had both the Nani incident and the Berbatov penalty which both fell on the United side of things.

    • Dave C

      January 12, 2011 at 11:08 am

      Two things:
      (1) would it really “cost the FA” if Man Utd were to be knocked out? I don’t see why the FA should care which of Man Utd or Liverpool progress to the next round.
      (2) is it really such an accepted truth that Webb tends to be biased towards Man Utd? Does he have any history of this beyond this game?

      From what I saw of the game, Ryan Giggs got a pretty stone-wall penalty in the 2nd half that was not given (certainly a more obvious foul than the Berba incident). If Webb was particularly biased to Man Utd, surely he would have given that one too?

  10. Stacy Richardson

    January 11, 2011 at 2:01 am

    I know of a referee in the National Football League who constantly reminds himself: “Call what you see, NOT what you expect to see.” (Expecting to see a certain foul, for example, would bring “confirmation bias” into the picture).

    I think the problems with football referees are three-fold: (1) they call what they expect to see, instead of what they actually see; (2) what they do see is limited; how one person with assistants way over on the sidelines should be expected to see everything is beyond me; and (3) the people supervising the referees in the F.A. are probably idiots; everyone else in the F.A. seems to be.

  11. jose

    January 10, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    i was going for man utd but i felt dirty the way webb helped man utd. i was like wtf man. to be honest that was a dirty victory and i didn’t enjoy it. berba dived and the 50/50 tackle by stevie g was at best a yellow, at best not even.

    • Dave C

      January 12, 2011 at 11:00 am

      Stevie G’s tackle was pretty much the definition of the red-card offence of serious foul play. To give anything less than a red for that would be a mistake on the ref’s part.

  12. Guy

    January 10, 2011 at 8:40 pm


    As a former ref for ten years in both middle school and high school all I can say is, “Bollocks.” Your whole article rests on the premise that “confirmation bias” is a given. I reject that premise as it has no basis in fact. It is someone’s opinion about what they see going on. Nothing more, nothing less.

    There are good refs and bad refs, no question. Even good ones may see things differently, just like equally good baseball umps may be “inside” or “outside” oriented (I was one of those, too).

    However, I was also a coach in both sports and always highlighted a ref’s tendencies to my team before hand. Forewarned is forearmed. That does not translate into some kind of overriding “confirmation bias”. Just the individual frailties/proclivities of human beings. I really don’t think the Premier League is any different.

    • Chris McQuade

      January 11, 2011 at 2:25 am

      The opening paragraph of the Article listed above:

      “When men wish to construct or support a theory, how
      they torture facts into their service! (Mackay, 1852/
      1932, p. 552)

      Confirmation bias is perhaps the best known and most
      widely accepted notion of inferential error to come out
      of the literature on human reasoning. (Evans, 1989, p. 41)

      If one were to attempt to identify a single problematic aspect of human reasoning that deserves attention above all others, the confirmation
      bias would have to be among the candidates for consideration.”

      With no indication that it is ‘disputed’ or anything other than universal. Also, I have googled “Confirmation Bias doesn’t exist” and “Disputing Confirmation Bias” and cannot find any academic/professional/amateur opposing view. So if can be accepted it is universal then on the balance of probabilities it is evident in Referee’ing. I certainly respect your opinion as a Referee but to dismiss the whole notion as ‘Bollocks’ seems a little heavy handed given the evidence.

      • Guy

        January 11, 2011 at 11:12 am

        I apologize for my lack of clarity. I did not mean to refute the existence of confirmation bias per se, only its applicability as some kind of overall explanation for game-in, game-out referee conduct. I think that is a bridge too far. Perhaps I am just too intellectually lazy to see it.

        One additional thought—While I am generally for the use of video I would quibble with your statement, “It is used in virtually every other international sport extensively without issue.” I am not aware of any sport where it is used to review a ref’s call or non-call of fouls while the game is in progress. I’m not sure that is feasible.

        • chris mcquade

          January 11, 2011 at 11:50 am

          I hoped to have said it enough but perhaps not. Video would only be used for ‘game-changing’ decisions. Red Cards (or not), Goals (or not), Penalty’s (or not).

          In Baseball THE parochial sport – Video used for Home Runs
          NFL- For Touchdowns
          Tennis – Hawkeye and referrals
          Cricket – Wickets

          • Earl Reed

            January 11, 2011 at 12:26 pm

            A penalty or red card most equate to a defensive pass interference call in the end zone in the NFL. It gives the offensive team first down at the one yard line, nearly a gimme touchdown. Those plays are not able to be reviewed up above.

            Penalties in the NFL can be reviewed only if they involve a technical aspect (such as a forward pass thrown beyond the line of scrimmage). That is a reviewable penalty. Anything like holding or pass interference, which is a subjective call by the referee, is non-reviewable.

            Goals should be reviewed. One could even argue that it would be worth reviewing balls out over the end line to determine corner vs. goal kicks, especially when occurring on the other side of the pitch from the assistant.

            But a handball in the area is definitely tangible, but it’s also very subjective, unless you 100% unequivocally define it. Same goes for pushing and shoving in the area (see the US/Slovenia game), or really anything else that a referee uses his judgment to decide.

            Finally, there are other gray areas. What about offsides? A guy who is onside is ruled offside just outside the area, and would have been in alone vs the goalkeeper. How is that any less egregious than a penalty called against someone who dives?

          • Dave C

            January 12, 2011 at 9:38 am

            Video would only be used for ‘game-changing’ decisions. Red Cards (or not), Goals (or not), Penalty’s (or not).

            I’ve never really bought into this argument. Don’t ALL decisions have the potential to be game changing? e.g. would you introduce video-replay for fouls 20 yards out? 30 yards out? What about corners/goal kicks, as someone mentioned already? A throw-in can be game changing if it’s in a dangerous area.

            I think if they were to introduce video-replay, it should be as part of some kind of limited challenge system (like tennis or NFL), but the coach/captain should be allowed to use those challenges to dispute any kind of decision (throw-ins, offsides, etc etc).

  13. King Eric

    January 10, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    How Howard Webb is considered one of the best refs in England is beyond me. He was a disaster in the WC Final and this is just one of the too many stand out instances that I can recall in the past year. Babel shouldn’t have apologized about his tweet and I’m a United supporter. The penalty was about as soft as can be and although I believe the red card could be warranted, it was still pretty harsh and would have been a caution for most refs considering it was the first bookable offence from Gerrard.

    • equus

      January 11, 2011 at 12:01 pm

      It doesn’t matter if it’s the first bookable offense or not, Gerrard went in with two foot, studs up jump tackle into his legs. That’s a pretty evident straight red. Whether “most refs” would have cautioned does change the law.

      I do agree that he missed the penalty though.

      • equus

        January 11, 2011 at 12:03 pm

        Sorry, “doesn’t” change the law.

      • Dave C

        January 12, 2011 at 10:20 am

        I have to agree with Equus on this – it was two footed, off the floor, studs up and late. I don’t see how any one can argue with the red card. Whether it was his “first bookable offence” doesn’t matter – a straight red is a straight red, that’s the whole point, it doesn’t matter if it’s your first offence or your tenth. Whether other refs would have given it also doesn’t matter – it was the right decision, and if there are refs out there who would not have shown a red card, then they are the ones who should be criticised.

  14. warren

    January 10, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    But I’d respectfully submit that I’m not a professional supporter, so I do accept them warts and all. 🙂 And yes I shout abuse at them too – it’s part of my experience of watching and enjoying the game. But I view referees as part of that game – I some might not.

    It will be a sad day when the referees decisions are replaced, sorry, enhanced, with technological accessories and become, to all intents and purposes, perfect. The next logical step will be to demand that the rest of the game becomes “perfect”, e.g. enclosing the grounds inside domes to avoid errant puffs of wind, removing the possibility of injuries by banning contact, etc etc.

    I have to admit I skimmed the article a bit. Sorry.

  15. warren

    January 10, 2011 at 7:24 pm

    Personally I’m glad we have human beings, with all their psychological flaws, officiating football. If anyone wants a “perfect” game, perhaps the robocup ( is more for them!

    (I’m not saying this is the point of your article BTW Chris!)

    • Chris McQuade

      January 10, 2011 at 7:28 pm

      If we wanted Human Beings we’d accept them warts and all, but in a Multi-Billion dollar industry where a penalty here or a red-card there decides the fate of a football club potentially then…as a professional sport we need a professional solution. BTW if you read the whole thing I may just love you.

      • Joe

        January 10, 2011 at 8:25 pm

        Maybe the problem isn’t that ref decisions can decide a multi-billion dollar industry. Maybe the problem is that a game has become a multi-billion dollar industry in the first place.

        Or maybe as someone who pays fifteen bucks a month for and just bought a twenty dollar Spurs shirt, I should keep my mouth (keyboard?) shut.

        • Dave C

          January 12, 2011 at 9:43 am

          Joe – this is a great point. People argue for changes to be made to the game on the justification that “these decisions can cost big money”. I think instead of using this as a reason to change the game, people should use this as a decision to NOT invest billions of dollars into what is just a game. If billionaires want to keep their cash safe, they should invest it elsewhere.

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