Study shines light on officiating bias in ACC, other conferences
As a professor of management with no real background in sports research, Rhett Brymer didn't envision that he'd become an agent of change in big-time college football.
But after conducting an extensive study of college football officiating - and producing a research paper that will be discussed this weekend at the prestigious MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference - Brymer is hoping to do just that. Having uncovered what they believe to be officiating bias in the Atlantic Coast Conference and a few other leagues, Brymer and his co-authors are calling for an overhaul to the process of selecting, training and hiring referees.
Brymer's research, which focused on about 3,500 games played in six conferences from 2005-12, revealed that officials in different leagues show biases toward teams in various situations. For example, the study showed underdogs tended to receive preferential treatment in the ACC and the former Big East, while home teams often received help in the ACC and Big 12. Meanwhile, refs in the Big 12 and the Big East showed bias against teams that played at a faster tempo.
While noting that they can't cite the causes of those biases, the researchers argue that their mere existence illustrates the need for, "centralization of the management and oversight of college football referees."
The way it works now, each conference hires, trains and oversees its own officials. And when mistakes are made, the discipline is handled however each conference sees fit.
"Everything is different from conference to conference," said Brymer, who is a business professor at Miami University of Ohio. "That creates all kinds of issues … you're just inviting variation."
It also invites speculation from conspiracy theorists.
Brymer, who grew up in Tallahassee and earned two graduate degrees at Florida State, was curious about officiating bias for years. But it wasn't until he went to work on his doctorate at Texas A&M a few years ago that he decided it might be worth a full-fledged study.
At the time, the Aggies were preparing to leave the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference, and many speculated that the conference's referees would be biased toward Texas A&M's opponents in their remaining league games. At the same time, there was speculation that officials in the Southeastern Conference were taking steps to "protect" their most powerful teams, in an effort to keep them in national championship contention.
Those conspiracies proved to be unfounded during Brymer's research, but he said several other issues came to light.
By tracking and comparing the penalty yardage assessed in conference games and out-of-conference games over eight years, Brymer's group was able to isolate differences in the way games are officiated by league referees. Here are a few of their findings:
"Contrary to profit-maximizing expectations of bias, none of the biases evident in the conferences in our study promoted favored teams. The ACC, and to a lesser extent the former Big East, actually show evidence of the opposite bias: more favored teams are penalized to a greater degree."
"Home-field advantage produces significantly fewer penalty yards in both the ACC and the Big 12."
"There is evidence of ACC officiating favoritism towards teams that have been in the league longest (founded in 1953) and more frequently flagging teams that are newer to the conference: Georgia Tech (1978), Florida State (1991), University of Miami (2004), Virginia Tech (2004), and Boston College (2005). Current ACC members Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and Louisville were all added after the sample period ended in 2012."
"Total plays is a significant predictor of penalty yards in-conference for the former Big East and Big 12, but not out-of-conference, an indication that a faster style of play may be more harshly punished within these two leagues."
Since news of his study began to spread earlier this month, Brymer has been in contact with Rogers Redding, the NCAA's coordinator of college football officiating. He also expects his work - which was co-authored by professors Tim R. Holcomb of Miami University and Ryan M. Rodenberg of Florida State - to receive more attention following the analytics conference at MIT this weekend.
"It's going to be peer-reviewed by some pretty significant people," Brymer sad. "They only accept 20 of about 400 or 500 submissions."
Speculation about biased referees is nothing new for college football. But Brymer said he believes those concerns will only increase with the larger payouts available to universities and conferences who advance to the College Football Playoff. Conference championship games will receive the most scrutiny, he said, because they often will determine whether a league gets a team into the playoff at all.
"It just invites all kinds of conspiracy theories," Brymer said. "It invites speculation across the board."
While conferences have long cited logistics and costs as reasons for overseeing their own referees, Brymer believes his study shows the need to move to a national pool of officials. He said that would improve the consistency of calls across the board, and also alleviate concerns about hidden agendas.
"The argument that it's too expensive doesn't hold up," Brymer said. "College football is high-stakes. There's a lot of money riding on these games."
Read Brymer's research paper - "Referee Analytics: Bias in Major College Football Officiating."