Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Nice Story on NFL Referee Ed Hochuli

Elizabeth Merrill has a great off-season story about NFL referee Ed Hochuli at espn.com for Outside the Lines.

At this site, I try to focus on NFL referee statistics as a way to analyze referees' performance, especially to look for trends and tendencies that distinguish referee crews from each other. I'd like there to be much more discussion about tendencies by referees without accusing referees of cheating or trying to make bad calls. It is difficult to use statistics to figure out whether a referee is having a bad day and making mistakes or intentionally trying to affect the result.

Instead, it might be more productive to look at all of the unconscious tendencies that distinguish referees from each other, such as whether some referees are sticklers for the rules or call less penalties (often doing so even-handedly by being stricter or more lenient for both teams in the game). Or perhaps some referees are more friendly to high-scoring games than more defensive-minded referees. I'd like to comb through the statistics to figure this out -- but not to accuse the referees of intentionally trying to change the result.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Referees, Criticisms, and Apologies Outside the NFL

One of my main points in analyzing NFL referee statistics is that journalists should spend more time criticizing NFL referees and commenting on their tendencies along with their performance during a game. It's possible to focus on a referee's tendencies without suggesting that a referee is trying to swing the game in one team's favor. For example, a referee might have an unconscious bias toward home teams because they are influenced by lots of cheering fans, even though they honestly attempt to block out the home crowd.

Or even more innocently, some referees are sticklers with the rule book (and call more penalties), while others are more lenient and let both teams get away with more. That doesn't mean a referee is trying to influence the game, it's just the unconscious tendency of referees.

Let's take a look at two examples outside of the NFL.

In the game between the Dallas Mavericks and the Denver Nuggets on May 9, 2009, Antoine Wright fouled Carmelo Anthony with a few seconds left in the fourth quarter but by mistake, NBA referee Mark Wunderlich did not make the foul call. It had a major effect on the game and within a few hours after it ended, the NBA admitted that the ref had made a mistake. I think it's a good move by the NBA to acknowledge a mistake, good that the journalists were already focused on the mistake, and too bad the NBA still has a gag rule that stops players and coaches (including Mark Cuban, who often has interesting analysis and ideas) from saying anything about what everyone was focused on.

In the game between Chelsea and Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League semifinal on May 6, 2009, referee Tom Henning Ovrebo made several controversial calls, especially a red card for Abidal, no penalty for a foul on Alves on Malouda, no penalty when Toure tugged on Drogba's shirt, no penalty when Anelka's flick-on is stopped by Pique's arm, and no penalty when Ballack shoots the ball and hits the shoulder or arm of Eto'o. There's no established way for UEFA to make a report on the referee's decisions and either stand by them or concede that he made a human error at some point. It's good that journalists are focused on the controversial calls and it is also good that UEFA does not have a gag rule so players and coaches can express their opinions (though hopefully not like Drogba did to a live audience at the end of the match!) Oh, and everyone needs to protect referees from death threats, also.

Looks like people have a way to go to reach intelligent, respectful analysis of referee performance. I will try to move in that direction with some NFL referee statistics and analysis. Post your comments if you have suggestions or ideas for the 2009 NFL season (or any lingering questions about the 2007 or 2008 NFL referee statistics).