One of the most thorough investigations into referee bias has found that they tend to apply harsher decisions against the away team.
According to new research published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, experienced referees are just as prone to this bias as their less experienced colleagues.
Andres Picazo-Tadeo and his team analysed data from 2,651 matches played in the first division of La Liga (the Spanish football league), between the 2002/3 and 2009/10 seasons. Unlike previous referee bias research, they were careful to consider the referees’ foul decisions separately from the awarding of penalty cards. It’s been shown before that referees tend to award more free kicks and fouls in favour of the home team – but this is not strong evidence for a ‘home team bias’ because it’s possible that away teams simply tend to commit more fouls in the first place.
The new research specifically looks at not just at the distribution of referees’ foul decisions between home and away teams; it also examined separately how harshly referees punish any fouls. In fact, the research uncovered no difference in the number of fouls that referees attributed to home and away teams. However, after a foul, the referees studied tended to punish away teams more harshly, with more yellow and red cards shown. This was especially the case when the home crowd was larger. The presence of a running track between the pitch and the crowd made no difference and, as already highlighted, neither did referee experience. The basic result complements a recent lab study that also found that simulated crowd noise influenced referees to punish fouls more severely.
Picazo-Tadeo and his colleagues speculate that perhaps referees’ initial foul decisions are made relatively automatically, in the heat of unfolding play, thus making them immune to social pressure from the home crowd. In contrast, after play has halted, the referee has time to decide on the severity of the infringement – and here the noise of the crowd may just sway their thinking at a sub-conscious level. Indeed, they may even, without realising they are doing it, use the noise of the crowd as a ‘cue’ for the seriousness of the foul. This would inevitably bias their decisions against the away team because of the relatively noisy protests of the (larger) home crowd, whenever one of their players was the victim of a foul.
Think twice before reversing that next home fixture, especially if the opposition tend to show a good turnout on the touchline!