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November 2020
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Media’s feeble attempt to explain away wins while ignoring the true research

By Tony Attwood

Please note this article refers to academic research into referee behaviour – the links to the research are given at the foot of the article.

The great thing about the debate concerning referees is that when Untold started out 14 years ago, the only evidence we had was what we saw on the pitch.  And if our view of what we saw was different from that of the journalists who wrote newspaper reports or commented on TV, well, that could be put down to our prejudice of ourselves as Arsenal supporters.

But over time the evidence that this was not the case has mounted.  Not just our own research, but also that by teams of academics, evidence showing beyond doubt that referees even at the highest levels could be incredibly and consistently biased.

Now the referees association – the PGMO – could have accepted that evidence which came from different sources, but they chose not to, instead continuing to claim that they were getting 98% of all decisions right without presenting any contrary evidence to back up their claims.

But with academic evidence clearly showing bias among referees the sensible thing to do would have been for PGMO – the organisation that runs refereeing for the Premier League to admit it, continuing with their claim of 98% accuracy prior to VAR, and an even higher level thereafter.

Which raises such issues as what might be influencing referees and why won’t they admit that they were wrong across all those years of claiming 98% accuracy and no bias?

These questions have now come into sharper focus as several newspapers have simultaneously launched a defence of referees, by deflecting the debate into other areas.

We now know from the research cited below that crowd noise affects refereeing decisions.  That is undeniable and is proven by the academic studies.   But instead of reporting these findings and questioning why PGMO was so extreme in its defence of referee accuracy, never once admitting anything could be wrong, the media are now coming to PGMO’s aid once more by suggesting that the lack of crowds in stadia is affecting players and causing changes to games.

That of course might be true – but for the moment it is pure supposition.  Again, why would a newspaper follow that story when it refuses to deal with the story which has evidence backed up by academic studies that crowds influence referees?

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The most obvious answer is deflection – deflecting the story about referees by suggesting other factors are at work.  And when such stories (all without evidence or anything remotely looking like proper research) appear in the papers at once, we might become suspicious that someone is organising a concerted campaign, to deflect from the research.

So we have the headline “Are Premier League finishers more relaxed without crowds in stadiums?” in the Telegraph.  It reports  17 of 20 Premier League teams are currently outperforming their expected goals total.

Which could well be interesting, but it then adds, “A range of theories have been offered to explain the deluge of goals in this Premier League season: a truncated pre-season, the depth of brilliant forwards in the division, defenders losing concentration without crowds, playing out from the back and high lines have all been cited….”   Yes and so has the change of referee behaviour – but that one factor – the one that has evidence to back it up, is ignored!  Why is that?

And as if that article by Daniel Zegiri is not enough, the Telegraph rams home the message with “The ‘fear’ has gone without fans in Premier League stadiums and everything feels different” in which Jason Burt, the chief football correspondent of the paper, tells us that “This was always going to be a season like no other but we may have underestimated the effects of no crowds on players.”

Again the newspapers may have done that.  But again, the article meanders around a supposition, ignoring the fact that the only research that has been done is that in which referees’ behaviour has been analysed and researched by senior academics.  Links to our articles on these research programmes are given below.

Now we do recall that in the past when the PGMO, which employs referees in the Premier League  wanted to improve its image it supplied articles to the Telegraph, so maybe that link still exists.  But that doesn’t explain the article “Goals galore – but does the empty grounds theory actually make sense?” by Hannah Jane Parkinson in the Guardian.

That opens with the curious line, “The Premier League has never seen a goal-laden start to the season like it, yet putting it all down to a lack of fans is debatable.”  Of course it is debatable – that is why we have research programmes!

We are told that, “The 3.79 goals per match average recorded this month is unprecedented in the modern era (all data from Nielsen’s Gracenote). The last time football in England was so prolific was in 1930-31, when an average of 3.95 goals were scored per game. 2019-20’s average was 2.9 goals. Why?”

This looks good – statistics, source of statistics, asking that question so rarely asked in newspapers: “Why?”  But then…

“The obvious answer is the fact the crowd isn’t there,” says Clifford Stott, crowd psychologist and author of a book on football hooliganism. “That relationship is missing. The ‘12th man’ is a common expression, which is why playing at home has such an advantage.”

Err, yes, I think we got that.  A bit like saying “Why are people voting in America?” and getting in an academic to say, “The obvious answer is that there is a Presidential election on.”   It doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t know.  But Stott’s line seems to be that the crowd influence the players.  That is not what the research shows at all.  It shows the crowd influences the referees.

Parkinson cites one other source: Gary Linekar talking about the one ghost game he ever played in.  Not very helpful and of no statistical importance.

After that there is a meander around the oddity that the number of shots is going down, but fewer shots are needing to be taken to score, and goalkeepers are saving fewer shots.  That is explained through a lack of training pre-season according to one journalist while Dr Victor Thompson, a clinical sports psychologist, suggests that testing of players for the virus is stressful and could have “a psychological impact on players which can lead to under-performing and mistakes.”

And a suggestion “the echoey environs making manager’s bollockings and teammates’ hollering more audible is likely having an impact.”  No research – all just individual observations.

But then tucked away among a barrage of possibility there is the killer point: “But it’s not happening everywhere. The increase in Ligue 1 is marginal. The true outlier is La Liga, which is recording the lowest goals per game in a whopping 93 years.”

And the conclusion?

None.  That’s it.  A load of one-person theories, an admission that it is not the same in every league and then… nothing.  The two major pieces of research that both reach the same conclusion, one from Reading University and one from London School of Economics – that referees are profoundly influenced by the crowd in their decision making – are ignored.  And those are not hard to find – our links are in the articles below.

Instead, we get supposition, guesswork and vague ideas, all given full credence, and not one single mention of the actual research.

And why is that?  Well, it could be lackadaisical reporting and an editor who had a space to fill and nothing to put in.  It could be a reporter and a newspaper that couldn’t care less.   Or it could be a desperate desire to hide the statistical evidence that shows that all of PGMO’s talk of accuracy levels across the years was invented gibberish now overturned by careful and detailed research.

Further reading

And from the Arsenal History Society Remembering George Armstrong: the podcast

5 comments to Media’s feeble attempt to explain away wins while ignoring the true research

  • Mike Cook

    Keep up the good work. In this day and age where we are told there are alternative facts, it’s more important than ever. It’s not always easy to see the hidden vested interests and incestuous relationships.

  • Mikey

    Good piece Tony. Keep it up.

  • AKH

    Dear Tony

    As you have alluded to, there has been research available for a number of years concerning referee bias and decision making versus crowd size/crowd noise and similar variables in a number of sports and sporting events. If Untold readers want further evidence of referee bias from an academic research point of view, I would recommend the following web address -Researchgate.net- and refer to articles concerning sport and refereeing. This together with the references for further reading given in the above article.
    It would appear that the evidence has been ignored for years by the media organisations and especially by sporting organisations themselves. Perhaps such organisations cannot handle information that seems to be in advance of “simple adding and taking away”! Perhaps such organisations think that if something remains “out of sight” it will remain “out of mind” !
    On the other hand perhaps such organisations are well aware of the research and associated findings but are not prepared to undermine the business and capital interests that now own and control sporting enterprises and environments!

  • Menace

    Here we go again Fulhams Kamara gets a red for raking studs on the calf of an opponent.
    Cancelo did worse to Tierney but stayed on with a yellow. Then again with a Walker boot almost down an Arsenal players throat not looked at by VAR what would we expect from the corrupt PGMOL.

  • AKH I think the latter is the case – they have invested interest in not revealing how biased football matches have been for many years

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