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Why do football players with aggressive reputations get treated differently?

Written by Accredited Sports Professionals   Posted in:Theory   June 5, 2014

Why do football players with aggressive reputations get treated differently?  article image
Players and managers are often seen lamenting a questionable decision that has gone against their team - often citing it as the reason why a result did not go their way. Of course, dubious decisions in their favour are rarely subject to the same discussion. Implicit, and indeed sometimes explicit, in a discussion by players and managers of a referee’s performance is that his decision–making has favoured one team over another.  And it is quite possible they are right.  There is good evidence that referees will display a bias to one team or another depending on a number of factors. Biased decision-making does not happen in a haphazard manner. Rather referees behave this way because they are subject to the same biases in decision-making that we can all fall prey to. In this article I explain why an aggressive reputation may count against a player.

Many players believe that individuals with aggressive reputations are treated differently.  For example, former England international right back Danny Mills, who himself had a reputation as an aggressive player said “It might come across as being petty and I don’t want to look like I’m being childish.  But it’s obvious to me that certain players are looked upon differently.  Every tackle is under the magnifying glass.”In a study which looked at aggressive reputation and decision-making 38 football referees were randomly assigned to either an experimental or control group, and were presented with the same 50 video clips of incidents in which players from opposing teams challenged for the ball2. The clips were taken from Argentinean Football League games so the participants would have limited prior knowledge of the teams involved. All the clips involved fouls committed both by, and against, a team (Boca Juniors) in a predominantly blue strip with a yellow stripe (blue team).  Both the experimental and control groups received written and verbal instructions prior to the task to indicate what action they would engage in if refereeing the game. In addition the experimental group was informed verbally and in writing that the blue team involved in all the incidents had a reputation for foul and aggressive play.
There was no difference between the experimental and control group in the number of decisions made against the blue team but the experimental group awarded significantly more red and yellow cards against the blue team. About 50% more cards. This finding is not surprising as people (and despite what some fans think that does include referees) will often rely on ‘rules of thumb’ (what psychologists term heuristics) to guide decision making3. The use of these rules of thumb are particularly likely when decisions have to be made quickly about events that are difficult to interpret – such as two people running quickly and colliding as they challenge for the ball. Because it is difficult to make sense of what has happened referees will not rely solely on the quick, and possibly incomplete view of the incident, but will use their prior knowledge and expectations about the players involved to help ‘fill in the gaps’ and guide judgment. In this study it is possible the referees’ knowledge of the blue team’s aggressive reputation was used to make sense of the challenge. Having witnessed a crude challenge by a player from the blue team this may have been considered as a deliberate attempt to injure an opponent, rather than a mistimed tackle and the referees were more likely to award a card against a player from the blue team.

That referees employ ‘rules of thumb’ to help guide decision-making or have an incentive to appease a large vociferous crowd in perhaps not surprising.  Understanding these biases does though help us to address them should we so wish.  For example, rules of thumb are far more prevalent when we have to make decisions quickly and when we don’t have all the information to make a decision – as may happen if the incident is partially obscured from the referee’s view.  One way to overcome this is to use video referees for key decisions as is done in rugby union and rugby league. The advantage a video referee has is more time to view a decision and an opportunity to view the decision from a number of angles.  Also, video referees are typically divorced from the action, frequently located in TV trucks outside the ground and so have less incentive to appease the crowd.  Of course such a system does not mean bad decision will not be made but it does mean that biases are less likely to occur. Finally, I am of course forgetting that players themselves have a responsibility to help develop suitable emotional control skills to deal with anger and aggression on the field.  So they do not develop an aggressive reputation in the first place.  Some of the work I have done with footballers in this regard is to give them skills to cope during situations when they have behaved aggressively in the past.  For example, after a poor decision by an official they may develop having a behavioural strategy (get back into position as quick as possible), use self-talk (“focus on the next play”) or breathing techniques to reduce arousal and the intensity of the anger response. 

1Taylor, D. (2002, January, 12). Angel with dirty face evokes the Revie era. The Guardian Sport, p. 6.
2Jones, M. V., Paull, G. C., & Erskine, J.  (2002). The impact of a team’s aggressive reputation on the decisions of association football referees. Journal of Sports Sciences, 20, 991-1000.
3Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgement under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases.  Science, 185, 1124-1131.