Proof That College Football Refs Are Riddled With Bias

A complex analysis indicates “considerable variance” in officiating across conferences

Action during the NCAA Playoff Semi final between Oregon Ducks and Florida State Seminoles at Rose Bowl Stadium, Pasadena, on Jan. 1, 2015.

Photographer: Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

On further review, the zebras are biased.

As Oregon and Ohio State prepare to battle for the NCAA football championship, a new study offers what may be the first empirical evidence that something other than rule infractions influences the referees employed by the biggest athletic conferences. Based on a complex analysis of penalty yards assessed over the course of eight seasons, the study by professors at Miami University of Ohio and Florida State University suggests, for instance, that ACC and Big 12 refs tend to penalize home teams less during games between conference rivals. Favored Big Ten teams are penalized fewer yards when playing nonconference teams, the study says, while Big 12 officials appear to punish teams that play faster—a potential concern for the go-go Ducks on Monday night.

These and other examples of bias indicate “considerable variance” in officiating across conferences, the study concludes, even as the monetary stakes mushroom with college football’s new four-team playoff. The researchers urge the NCAA to consider creating a national officiating body rather than have refs hired, fired, and evaluated by conferences.

Unfortunately for college football’s legions of conspiracy theorists (including this writer), the refereeing study does not support the notion that officials secretly help their conference’s strongest teams so the conference can reap the prestige and jackpots offered by bowl games and national titles. “We expected to find that but didn’t,” says Rhett Brymer, the Miami University strategic management professor who led the study. The SEC, which won seven of the eight NCAA championships during the period under review, was found to have officials essentially devoid of bias. ACC refs, on the other hand, were flagged for favoring home teams, betting-line underdogs, and long-time conference members such as Duke and North Carolina.

Indeed, the guys in stripes may not be the scheming power freaks that some fans imagine but mere mortals who carry biases they may be unaware of. The researchers studied officiating in the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, ACC, and now-defunct Big East conferences from 2005 through 2012. They analyzed the penalty yards assessed in games between conference teams—all of which are officiated by conference refs—then compared that with yards per game levied in games between teams from different conferences. Evidence of bias comes from significant differences in the yards assessed during in-conference games vs. nonconference, measured against such variables as home field, betting-line favorites, and total plays. For instance, the study says, “ACC and Big 12 teams can expect 6.28 and 4.36 fewer penalty yards per game when playing in-conference games at home, but no such advantage when playing out-of-conference games at home.”

Big 12 refs—who will be officiating Monday's first championship game following a playoff—assessed more penalty yards per play in games with more plays than officials from other conferences. In theory, that could be a problem for Oregon’s hurry-up offense, which ran, on average, 77.4 plays per game this season vs. Ohio State’s 74.4, according to TeamRankings.com.

Officials from the ACC and Big 12 didn't respond to requests for comment. Big Ten officials weren't available. A spokeswoman for the NCAA declined to comment.

The study doesn’t account for such subjective officiating decisions as ball spots, possession calls, and pass interference penalties, nor does it attempt to single out pivotal games or evaluate individual refereeing crews. “Methodologically, this is analogous to using a weak telescope to find something in space,” Brymer says. “The fact that we did find something gives validity to something being there.”

Perhaps the study’s oddest finding is that ACC refs may have hurt the conference’s strongest squads despite incentives to do the opposite. That might be due to the conference’s historical identification with basketball and the influence of its four founding North Carolina-based members: “Internal ACC power may be threatened by non-founding schools with strong football that drive much of its revenue," the paper notes. Nonfounders include Florida State, which won the NCAA football title last year.

After submitting the study for possible presentation at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference next month, Brymer sat down and crunched officiating data for 2013-14. In those two years, Florida State’s championship happened to correspond with ACC refs halting their apparent favoritism of conference underdogs. “And strangely," Brymer says, "the SEC picked that bias up."

He and his co-authors argue that taking officiating out of conference hands and having it managed nationally—as it is in most NCAA sports—would help preserve football's integrity while guarding against potential game-fixing and other manipulation. “While centralized officiating is not devoid of partiality, one large uneven playing field is likely preferable to many uneven playing fields,” the study says.

Brymer thinks Oregon will win the title game, although the men in stripes make it a risky prediction: "If Big 12 refs are flag happy with the Ducks' fast pace, which they are prone to do, Oregon could be in trouble."

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