Skip to main content

Why refs swallow the whistle

By Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim, Special to CNN
  • Writers say behavioral economics, psychology can help predict Super Bowl outcome
  • They say officials not likely to make controversial calls late in game
  • NFL coaches become risk averse in big games, eschewing calls that might help them win
  • Writers: The more fan support in the stands, the better the team does.
  • Super Bowl
  • Football
  • Sports
  • Psychology

Editor's note: Tobias J. Moskowitz, University of Chicago financial economist, and L. Jon Wertheim a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, are the authors of "Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won."

(CNN) -- For these past few days in Dallas, the NFL punditry has been remarkably divided on predictions for Super Bowl XLV. For every "Packer Backer" espousing Green Bay's defense, there was a "Steeler healer" pontificating about Pittsburgh's balanced attack.

For every talking head waxing rhapsodic about Green Bay's quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, there was a counterpart singing the praises of Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger.

Las Vegas echoed this ambivalence. It's been nearly 30 years since the gambling line on a Super Bowl has been this narrow. Pick 'em, as they say.

We'll let others divine the outcome. But we will prognosticate, using behavioral economics and social psychology. As you watch what might be the highest-rated Super Bowl in history, bear these predictions in mind.

The officials will not make controversial late-game calls. It was three years ago that we witnessed what might have been the most memorable play in Super Bowl history. Heavily favored, and undefeated on the season, the New England Patriots clung to a 14-10 lead over the New York Giants late in the fourth quarter.

As the Giants executed their final drive, with barely more than a minute remaining, they were consigned to third down and five from their own 44-yard-line. Eli Manning, the Giants' quarterback, took the snap and scrambled and slalomed in the face of a fierce Patriots pass rush and heaved a pass downfield. Giants receiver, David Tyree, pinned the ball against his helmet and somehow held on for the catch. A few plays later, the Giants scored and won the game, 17-14, a titanic upset.

The enduring image of that game is Tyree's "Velcro catch." But few recall what happened earlier on the play. Manning was grabbed by multiple defenders before he threw the ball. Under any other conditions, he would almost surely have been declared "in the grasp," and the play would have been whistled dead.

However, the official made a judgment to make no judgment. He let the play unfold. There's even a phrase in the sports lexicon for this: swallowing the whistle.

And this is completely consistent with human behavior. We tend to view acts of omission as less harmful than acts of commission -- even if the outcome is the same or worse. Psychologists have found that people view inaction as less causal, less blameworthy and less harmful than action, even when the outcomes are the same. Or worse.

The first principle imparted to all medical students: "Do no harm." It's not, pointedly, "Do some good." Our legal system draws a similar distinction, seldom assigning an affirmative duty to rescue.

In business we see the same omission bias. When are stockbrokers in bigger trouble? When they neglect to buy a winning stock and, say, miss getting in on the Google IPO? Or when they invest in a dog, buying shares of Lehman Brothers with your retirement nest egg? Naturally, they act accordingly.

Especially in the Super Bowl--relentlessly scrutinized as it is--officials, understandably, are reluctant to insinuate themselves. This isn't altogether bad. As fans, we prefer to let athletes determine outcomes. But when you wonder why so few penalties are called late in the fourth quarter, recall the omission bias.

The play-calling will be conventional. NFL coaches are a conservative lot to begin with. They tend to punt on fourth down entirely too frequently. Several years ago, a Berkeley economist, David Romer, theorized that the play-calling of NFL teams shows "systematic and clear cut" departures from the decisions that would maximize their chances of winning.

Based on more than 700 NFL games, Romer identified 1,068 fourth-down situations when, statistically, the right call would have been going for it. The NFL teams punted 959 times. Nearly 90% of the time, NFL coaches made the suboptimal choice.

This risk aversion is particularly pronounced during the Super Bowl. Again, this mirrors human behavior more generally. When, say, investors are known to pore over financial statements, brokers are likely to make conventional stock picks--even if statistics suggest that riskier stock picks are the better choice.

The irony: on the rare occasion Super Bowl coaches are willing to stray from convention, the outcome is often favorable. In the previous Super Bowl, the New Orleans Saints began the third quarter with an onside kick, an unusual gambit under any circumstances, but particularly in the Super Bowl. The Saints recovered the kick and it turned the game around. As in life, good fortune favored the brave.

Crowd support could make a difference. For all the myths in sports that can be unpacked, for all the conventional wisdom that is unwise, here's a truism that's true: The home team wins more often. This is the case across sports. This has been the case for decades. In 44 out of the 45 NFL seasons, home teams won more than half the games played.

True, the elimination of the Cowboys meant that, technically, this Super Bowl would be played on a "neutral" field. But that doesn't mean fan support is evenly split. Five years ago that the Steelers faced the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL, held in Detroit, a five-hour drive from Pittsburgh; a considerably further distance from the Pacific Northwest.

With demonstrably more rabid fans in the stands, the Pittsburgh players were, perhaps, bolstered by the support. But we think the real differencev -- and, indeed the real cause of home advantage -- was the effect of those partisans on the officiating. Pittsburgh was cited for three penalties totaling 20 yards; Seattle was cited for seven penalties (several highly controversial) and docked 70 yards.

Again, this stands to reason. Psychology finds that social influence is a powerful force, affecting human behavior and decisions, often without subjects themselves aware of it. Psychologists call this influence "conformity" because it causes the subject's opinion to conform to a group's opinion.

Officials are asked to make split-second decisions. One call will earn them the approval of a large group. The other will earn disapproval. Pittsburgh and Green Bay are virtually equidistant from Dallas. But early in the game, pay heed to which team's fans are louder--especially when they react to officials' calls.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim.