NHL Referees are biased, but not in the way you think

Dion Phaneuf pleads for mercy, I think. 

The Folks over at Lighthouse Hockey had some qualms with the officiating in Tuesday night’s loss to the Leafs. For the second straight game the Leafs did not surrender a power play opportunity to the New York Islanders. While some might don their tin-foil touques and pull out their Glen Beck Chalkboard and begin drawing lines between Brian Burke, Phil Kessel, and Brendan Shanahan, they should know that this is the first time in 10 years that the Leafs have gone two straight games without taking a penalty. But those who have cried foul about NHL officiating at times are onto something; while there is no grand conspiracy referees are indeed biased.

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On Tuesday night Islanders fans noticed a laundry-list of infractions by the Leafs that went unpunished. Here Dominik from Lighthouse Hockey’s take:

 “Maybe competent officiating changes how this 4-3 OT loss goes; you never know.

The Islanders had to waste four minutes preventing the angelic Leafs from getting a shot on their powerplays, while the refs patently ignored or missed multiple highsticks to Islanders faces as well as an absurd Luke Schenn crosscheck to Nino Niederreiter’s back away from the play after Nino had the gall to legally bodycheck two of Schenn’s teammates.

But this is your NHL, and it even carried through to the winning goal, set up by the very player (Mikhail Grabovski) who had just interfered with Matt Moulson in the Leafs zone to create the 2-on-1 that won the game.”

What he failed to mention were some of the Islanders infractions that went unnoticed, a few John Tavares crosschecks and some liberties taken with Phil Kessel, and a Niederreiter headshot to Grabovski, to name just a few. [Editor’s Note: Not to mention that all Grabbo did was put his stick over Moulson’s as the puck arrived. Maybe if Moulson hadn’t flopped like a fish (appropriate) trying to get a call he could have prevented the winning goal.]

It seemed as though the refs chose to swallow their whistles and let the players decide the outcome of the game.  While on this occasion it was to the detriment to the Islanders, the referees’ decision to not call a potential infraction on Grabovski reflects a well demonstrated bias that influences referees in all of the major sports called omission bias. The first chapter of Scorecasting by Moskowitz and Wertheim explains the omission bias, and why, more often than not, it’s better for the ref to swallow his whistle.

They explain that “people view acts of omission-the absence of an act-as far less intrusive or harmful than acts of commission-the committing of an act-even if the outcomes are the same or worse.” There are countless psychological experiments that illustrate this bias and they all amount to the same thing; people are much more comfortable with negative consequences that result from inaction as opposed to a direct action.

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They spoke to an NBA referee about this and he explained that their thinking is guided by the same thinking. “(Referees) are told that there are four basic kinds of calls: correct calls, incorrect calls, correct noncalls, and incorrect noncalls.” According to the ref, the worst type of call to make is an incorrect call. By taking action and inserting himself into the game, the outcome of his actions will be judged much more harshly than if he had made an incorrect noncall.

Take a look at MacArthur’s overtime winner:

The play begins with an Islanders scoring chance. The puck comes back to the point and the Islander defence takes a shot which bounces off the end boards and ends up loose in the slot.

At the 14 second mark Grabovski and Moulson are both reaching for the loose puck. Grabovski makes contact with Moulson and knocks him down.  This is where the omission bias kicks in.

The ref has a choice; he can call interference and send the Islanders to the PP. Until this point the game had been moving extremely quickly in the overtime and penalties are not generally called in the extra frame. By making the call the referee ran the risk of making an incorrect call. If he called the penalty on Grabovski, and the Islanders scored on the subsequent PP his actions would have been judged more harshly than his failure to make a call.

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The infraction by Grabovski was borderline and given the context of the game action on the referee’s part had the potential to significantly alter its outcome. So he swallowed his whistle and let the players decide the outcome.

The next time you see a referee swallow his whistle, remember that he is not biased, but being influenced by one.  

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