NLL Referees, Part 2: Bias and conspiracies

This is the second of my two-part series on referees in the NLL. In part one, we talked about how referees have a thankless and difficult job. In addition to that, they have fans constantly complaining about the penalties they call or don’t call. Can they be inconsistent? Absolutely, but who isn’t? Do they make mistakes? Definitely, but who doesn’t? It seems that fans will not accept even the slightest error by an official. When was the last time you heard a fan say “Yeah, that was the wrong call, but hey, he’s only human”?

One of the biggest complaints about refs is that they are inconsistent, and I completely agree that this is a problem. Inconsistency can be a big problem in any sport, but honestly, I’ve never noticed NLL refs being any more inconsistent than officials in other sports. We’ve all seen an umpire that calls a high pitch a strike in the second inning and a ball in the seventh, but nobody pulls the old “All MLB umpires are incompetent and they should all be fired.” You also have to remember that there are two refs, so when they called Mr. Goon on your team for the hit from behind in the first quarter and then didn’t call Mr. 40-goal-scorer on the other team for a similar hit in the third, it may not have been the same ref. The one that called the first penalty may have been fifty feet away from the second, and the one that saw the second hit may not have seen the first and thought the second wasn’t a hit worth penalizing. Two different fans may disagree on what constitutes a clean hit from a dirty one, why wouldn’t two refs?

Another charge leveled at the refs is that they’re biased. Few, if any, refs in lacrosse can be completely unbiased. This is because very few people can be completely unbiased. The only way to make sure you have truly unbiased refs is to have people who DO NOT CARE who wins or loses, which means you need someone who doesn’t know the players or coaches personally, and has no history with any of them or any of the teams. But lacrosse is such a small community that this is pretty much impossible. People can overlook their personal relationships with players and I’m sure most officials in all sports do, but even so, the perception of bias will be there. Say a ref calls a crosschecking penalty against one player and ten minutes later does not call a penalty against another player for a similar hit. But if the ref and one of the players involved know each other from junior lacrosse or come from the same town or something, fans may believe that he has a bias against the first player or is a friend of the second. In actual fact, it could be that the ref just didn’t see the second hit, or from his vantage point the second hit was similar but clean. There’s pretty much no way around this. People are going to believe what they believe, sometimes in spite of the evidence. Refs are just going to have thick skins when it comes to fans accusing them of bias. And considering that in general the fans are actively rooting for one team over the other, having them accuse someone else of bias is just a touch ironic.


C'mon, really?But some people go even further than that, and make accusations that the refs, or the league as a whole, have it out for a particular team or want a particular team to be successful. There is a huge difference between having inconsistent or biased refs and an organized conspiracy. Bias can be explicit – “I don’t like this guy so if he hits someone and and it’s even close to being illegal, I’m going to call a penalty on him” – or implicit, where a ref may call a penalty against a player because he has a history of bad behaviour, and so he’s not given the benefit of the doubt even if this decision isn’t conscious. The former needs to be eliminated, if it can be detected, but there’s not much that can be done about the latter.

A conspiracy, on the other hand, implies knowingly applying the rules and making judgment calls differently based on the team or player that the potential infraction is against. It would also mean that more than one ref must be involved in this, since a single ref consistently calling penalties against one team and not the other would be noticed (and likely questioned) by the other ref if he weren’t in on it. This kind of accusation is serious, and would call into question every game the refs being accused have ever worked. If such an accusation could be proven – that one or more refs conspired to penalize one team more or less heavily than the others – this would be the biggest scandal the league has ever seen. If it could be proven that the league itself was involved, it’s safe to say the NLL would finally be getting the front-page coverage they’ve been seeking for years – right before they fold. Sure, having a Colorado / Toronto final would be better for ratings and publicity than an Edmonton / Rochester final, but the risks to the league of trying to arrange something like this are just too great for such a scheme to even be considered. We have to assume that the league and refs are impartial (or as impartial as possible) and that any claim otherwise is infeasible. You’d need extraordinary evidence in order to make a case for such an extraordinary claim. I’ve heard many such claims but have never seen the slightest shred of actual evidence.


Many people reading these articles will simply brush me off as an NLL ref apologist. Some might wonder if I have a friend or relative who’s a ref. For the record, I don’t. And there is at least one NLL ref who I don’t particularly like. I find he tends to make a big show of some calls, as if he wants it to be about him, making sure everyone knows that he is in charge. As I said before, the best refs are the ones who do their job and fade into the background, not getting in the way unless it’s necessary.

Now I will admit that I may be totally off-base with some of this. Maybe I’ve been lucky and the refs I’ve seen are pretty good while the ones that play Philly and Rochester and out west aren’t as good. It’s possible that never having actually played lacrosse, I just don’t know bad reffing when I see it. Or maybe the overall talent level is not high but is fairly consistent, and I’m confusing that with “they’re all pretty good”.

Yes, there are always going to be bad calls by refs in lacrosse games. But if you don’t give in to confirmation bias, I suspect that in the long run you’ll find that just as many bad calls go against your team as against the other teams. This means that there is indeed a level playing field and so any biases, real or perceived, are eventually cancelled out. NLL games are decided by the players, not the refs.

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