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Is confirmation bias a factor in poor officiating decisions?

The answer is yes.

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MLS Soccer - Los Angeles Galaxy v Houston Dynamo Photo by Shaun Clark/Getty Images

Life as a referee is notoriously difficult to say the least. At the professional level officials must remain vigilant to avoid developing biases that could potentially cloud their judgement. There’s confirmation bias, which occurs when elite teams with attacking stars (and glowing media coverage) receive a disproportionate share of favorable calls, a practice that is accepted somewhat but problematic nonetheless.

There’s personal bias: Bait the ref one too many times and you may very well miss out on a legitimate call. It’s why you’re taught as a youth to avoid mouthing off to refs, so you don’t get on their bad side. For better or worse Zlatan eschewed that logic, ripping into the officials on multiple occasions this year and going so far as to confront PRO’s Howard Webb at the All-Star Game.

It’s also an unwritten rule for officials to manage the game. Arguably the most famous incident in recent memory was Nigel de Jong’s karate kick on Xabi Alonso minutes into the 2006 World Cup Final, when the referee (coincidentally, also Howard Webb) elected to issue de Jong a yellow card for a foul that was clearly a red. (Webb later admitted he got the call wrong)

It makes sense to avoid ruining a World Cup final, we can all agree on that. There is a fine line however between management and manipulation. Tip the scales too much in one direction and run the risk of influencing the result.

Case in point..

Five years ago Bruce Arena’s LA Galaxy suffered a 1-0 loss at home in the first leg of the 2014 Western Conference playoffs. In the postgame press conference Landon Donovan and Omar Gonzalez didn’t mince words, accusing referee Kevin Scott of swallowing his whistle to prevent Sounders players from being sent off. According to Gonzalez, Stott literally said he would not be sending anyone off.

As you might expect Stott’s words were never confirmed, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t say them.

Five years later, history repeated itself. In the MLS Cup playoffs vs. an elite attacking unit in LAFC and Kevin Stott officiating the match, the Galaxy were on the wrong side of two of the biggest calls.

In the 40th minute LAFC scored a goal that never should have counted: Brian Rodriguez was marginally offside when running onto Latif Blessing’s through ball and Stott declined to check the play himself. Late in the match with LA down a pair of goals, Zlatan Ibrahimovic expertly slammed a left-footed cannon on the half volley past Tyler Miller, but the play was waved off by Stott who whistled a foul on Romain Alessandrini for colliding with Tristan Blackmon. Contact was made but its debatable if Blackmon would have gotten to the cross when the defender flailed to the ground.

Now we don’t believe Stott is acting with any malicious intent. We certainly don’t believe the guy opened a sealed envelope in a parking garage with the instructions “GIVE LAFC ALL THE CALLS” as some have suggested.

But you have to wonder if some of that confirmation bias is in play when LAFC escaped the match (both matches at the Banc, in fact) without conceding a single yellow card. Minutes after Perry Kitchen was issued a caution for a professional foul on Blessing, Steven Beitashour was clearly guilty of impeding Cristian Pavón on the counter-attack. No caution for Beita.

For Guillermo Barros Schelotto and the Galaxy squad this would be forgivable if it were a one-time thing, but earlier in the year at Dignity Health Sports Park it was LAFC who benefitted from a clear-cut offside goal and a questionable PK shout 90 seconds into the match. And LA are hardly the only team to suffer controversial decisions against the Black and Gold this campaign. San Jose Earthquakes manager Matias Almeyda felt compelled to speak out on the subject, issuing a stern warning that passionate managers will not tolerate favorable treatment from the referees.

For all the flak pundits have received for pumping out positive LAFC content, Bob Bradley and his club deserve the plaudits. It would be regrettable if his side’s accomplishments were lessened by the perception his side had a little help.