The Refs (and Commentators) are Blind: Perceived Bias in Sports

Photo by David Monniaux, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

A Tale of Two Games

We recently came across a post on a volleyball website in which the poster expressed the opinion that the Big Ten Network’s broadcasters for the Illinois vs. Penn State women’s volleyball match on November 13th had been overtly pro-Penn State. 

We actually had the opposite reaction — we thought the broadcasters went out of their way to praise the Illini players, which wasn’t always easy, as Illinois was, to be honest, being outplayed throughout most of the match. 

Which reminded us of a study we had read about a few years ago on another blog: “They Saw A Game: A Case Study,” by Albert H. Hastorf & Hadley Cantril, which was originally published in The Journal of Abnormal Psychology (1954, vol. 49, Issue 1, pp. 129-134), on fans’ perceptions of bias in officials in a Dartmouth vs. Princeton football game on November 23, 1951.   

The game, which was played in Princeton’s Palmer Stadium, was particularly important to Princeton because it was undefeated, and this was the last game of the season for both teams (and for Princeton’s star player, Dick Kazmaier,  who had just been featured on cover of Time Magazine).

The game was a rough one, and Kazmaier was knocked out of the game in the second quarter with a broken nose.   A Dartmouth player was forced out of the game in the third quarter  with a broken leg.  By the end of the game (which, for what it’s worth, Princeton won and Kazmaier went on to win the Heisman Trophy), Dartmouth had been penalized 70 yards and Princeton 25, although there reportedly were several plays in which there were offsetting penalties by both sides.

Nonetheless, fans of both teams thought the other side had been the instigator of the rough play and the villains in the game.  Hastorf and Cantril’s case study quotes a report in the Daily Princetonian, Princeton’s student newspaper, on November 27th 1951:

This observer has never seen quite such a disgusting exhibition of so- called “sport.”  Both teams were guilty but the blame must be laid primarily on Dartmouth’s doorstep.

Dartmouth fans saw things rather differently.  A November 28, 1951 article in the Dartmouth (Dartmouth’s undergraduate student newspaper), also quoted in the case study, put it this way:

Dick Kazmaier of Princeton admittedly is an unusually able football player. Many Dartmouth men traveled to Princeton, not expecting to win—only hoping to see an All-American in action. Dick Kazmaier was hurt in the second period, and played only a token part in the remainder of the game. For this, spectators were sorry. . . . Medical authorities have confirmed that as a relatively unprotected passing and running star in a contact sport, he is quite liable to injury. Also, his particular injuries—a broken nose and slight concussion —were no more serious than is experienced almost any day in any football practice, where there is no more serious stake than playing the following Saturday. Up to the Princeton game, Dartmouth players suffered about 10 known nose fractures and face injuries, not to mention several slight concussions. 

Did Princeton players feel so badly about losing their star? They shouldn’t have. During the past undefeated campaign they stopped several individual stars by a concentrated effort, including such mainstays as Frank Hauff of Navy, Glenn Adams of Pennsylvania and Rocco Calvo of Cornell.

In other words, the same brand of football condemned by the Prince— that of stopping the big man— is practiced quite successfully by the Tigers.

The Study

Hastorf and Cantril set out to explore this perceptual problem.  To do so, they selected groups of students at both schools, to whom they administered a questionnaire one week after the game that was, according to the study, “designed to get reactions to the game and to learn something of the climate of opinion in each institution.” 

Then they showed a film of the game (which was provided by the Dartmouth College Athletic Council) to selected undergraduates from each school and had them record on a second questionnaire, as they watched the film, whenever they thought there had been a rules infraction by either team and whether these infractions were “mild” or “flagrant.” 

To read the results of the study, Click Here — they are quite interesting.  The short version is that Princeton students overwhelmingly thought the game had been “rough and dirty,” with none of them characterizing it as “clean and fair,” and almost 90% viewed Dartmouth as the instigator of the rough play.  Princeton students thought Dartmouth had committed twice as many penalties as did the Dartmouth students (who thought both teams had committed about the same number of penalties).   

Although a plurality of Dartmouth students thought the game had been “rough and dirty,” more than 10% characterized it as “clean and fair,” and more than 33% inserted their own terminology, characterizing the game as having been “rough and fair.”  As to blame, over half of the Dartmouth students thought both sides were to blame (with 1/3 blaming Dartmouth). 

The Takeaway

We weren’t there, so we don’t know who was more right about the November 23, 1951 Dartmouth Princeton football game.  And though this is hardly news, the study is a compelling example of the effects of perceptual bias.  The only thing we really know is that the Big Ten Network announcers were models of fairness and gracious and insightful commentary.   We should know.  We watched the broadcast.