Wednesday, June 23, 2010

World Cup officiating: conspiracy or deep-seated bias? Part One

Today, the US team was again victimized by yet another disallowed goal on a subjective call. The announcers mentioned them in the same breath with only three other controversies in the history of World Cup play. In other words, the announcers thought that what has happened to the US so far has only been matched or "bettered" three times in the history of World Cup play. As we know now, the US team scored in injury time to advance anyway, but was very close to being eliminated by not one but two terrible and subjective calls from officials. This begs a question: were the disallowed goals the result of incompetence, individual bias, or a coordinated effort to keep the US out of the second round?

I don't believe in coincidence. I don't believe that "bad calls" just "happen" in the way they have at the World Cup. Occasionally, bad calls happen, but when there are two potential back-breakers against a team that most people outside of the US pretty much hate, I can't chalk it up to "coincidence." I could almost understand one case of "incompetence," but two game-changing calls against the same team in crucial situations transcends mere incompetence.

The next possibility is individual bias on the part of two seperate officials. As sports fans, most of us like to buy into the illusion that refs are trying to be "fair" and "objective" at all times, and that their only agenda, collectively and individually, is to call every game down the middle and allow the team that plays the best to win. While there are probably plenty of officials in all sports who do call every play down the middle without bias, there are also plenty who don't.

Officials are human, and subject to likes, dislikes, and bias toward both teams and individuals. The best of the best transcend their biases, but many fail to do so. I won't go as far as to say they are "dishonest," but it is easy to see that one's biases and personal feelings can often "filter" their perceptions. They think they are calling games down the middle, but often shade games toward their preferences without even knowing they are doing so.

Sliding further down the scale, there are officials who consciously allow their biases to affect their calls. These officials may rationalize that the teams they cheat out of games "deserve it," but they know they are making bad calls. This is often seen in umpires who "shade" strike zones into varying sizes, depending upon who is pitching or what team they play for.

At the very worst end of the scale are officials such as disgraced former NBA referee Tim Donaghy, who admitted to influencing point spreads and alleges league-wide corruption starting from the front office. I fully believe that there are officials like this in all sports, but that they are usually outliers who act on their own. I do, however, believe that the NBA likes to see certain teams and players succeed. For example, I don't see the fact that the NBA got their dream scenario this year, a seven-game final of Boston vs LA, as anything remotely resembling "coincidence."

If the officials were the only thing to be taken into consideration at the World cup, I would believe that what happened in the first round was the result of two officials with anti-US bias making calls on their own, and that there is no relationship between the two calls. However, I think there may be some deeper things at work here.

I will explore some alternatives in part two.

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