As the name might suggest, and Mark Twain might advise, Economic Letters presents research is a shorter form than many journals in economics. A recent edition included a three-page paper on the impact of Covid-19 crowd restrictions on foul play in German football. The authors are Marek Endrich and Tobias Gesche. Both are associated with institutions of Law & Economics. Using 165 games played without crowds and almost three times as many games played before the crowd restrictions, the authors find that the gap between foul play by the home and away teams reduces. I'm using the term "foul play" whereas the title of the paper is "Home-bias in referee decisions". I want anyone who reads this blog post to realise that any difference in foul play might not be due to a bias introduced by the referee. It is possible that the impact of the crowd is purely via player behaviour.
The introduction of technology to determine whether or not a player is offside provokes some debate but none of it is of the "machine-biased" variety. We don't believe machines have emotions that might result in biased decisions. Are there more machine-determined offside decisions against the away team? If so then maybe it might prompt us to wonder if we overestimate, or overattribute, any bias in the decisions of referees.
Maybe economists are more likely to blame the referee. Or maybe it is just those of us with a background in public choice (or government failure). I'm also guilty of looking for such bias in the decisions of referees. My hunch is that referees tend to favour the team that is behind. A sort of human instrument in ensuring game-day competitive balance. In a previous post, I explained how I checked the data from twelve games in the 2017 senior hurling championship and found that the team that was behind got 54% of the calls. Possible referee bias?
Now consider the RTE piece that is based on data from the excellent SixTwoFourTwo website. Here the referee is missing from the analysis. It is the players that commit the fouls. The suggestion is that it benefits their team. The perspective is different to mine but the findings are consistent. In both cases the data suggests that the winning/leading team commit more fouls or are penalised more often. What differs is the whether one attributes the finding to the decisions of the referees or the players. Like Endrich and Gesche, I looked to the referee. Let me leave it at that rather than move into speculation as to why that is the case.