Need a story? Blame the refs!

Full disclosure: I’m a psychotic Florida Football fan. I spent almost six years as an undergrad at UF, and I’m there now working on my MBA. I may be biased. But so is everyone else who follows or reports on sports, so I’m not alone. In this article, I will try to be as objective and rational as possible, which means I won’t be trying to write this during any Gator games.

As always, the sports world has been awash in controversy and conspiracy theories this year. After all, who would watch ESPN if it were just a bunch of talking heads reporting scores that could be found freely on the web? Sports journalists’ jobs are to report facts and generate buzz. Buzz generates viewers. Viewers help generate revenue. And while I think that business model is fine, I think maybe sports journalists should be held to a higher standard than they currently are.

True, sports journalists aren’t typically reporting on significant world events — tragedies, politics, technological and medical breakthroughs, etc. — but, as with mainstream journalism, what they report can have real-world consequences. Usually, those consequences can be measured in dollars, and sometimes they can be measured in affected lives. But even without measuring the effects of what sports journalists report, I think it’s important that they report truth (or what they know to be true) and that they do their due diligence and find some evidence to support what they’re “reporting”.

Do Florida and Alabama get all the calls?

“There’s a conspiracy to get Florida and Alabama into the National Title game!” This statement has been made both explicitly and implicitly by many over the past several months. Mike Wilbon very, very strongly implied it. I think he stopped short of actually saying, “There’s a conspiracy theory.” when Tony asked him point-blank if that’s what he thought. Ultimately, Mike fell back on claiming there’s an “environment” that is cultivated that causes this stuff to happen. Other bloggers and sports media personalities have alluded to it as well. And, true, these people aren’t “journalists” per se, but they’re sort of the cyclists of the car-and-pedestrian world: they get all the privileges of being journalists, but don’t have to follow any of the rules.

The mostly commonly cited indicator of the alleged conspiracy is that Florida and Alabama “get all the calls” in order to give them an edge against their opponents. In other words, the refs are either blowing calls, or making the wrong calls in order to give Florida an edge. I have yet to see any real evidence to support this claim. And yet the claim itself could have some very real consequences for people. For example, the refs for the Arkansas vs. UF and LSU vs. UGA games were suspended after the LSU vs. UGA game. That means they didn’t get paid. And it means their reputations have taken a hit. And it means their careers as refs could be shortened substantially. After all, if they’re trying to rig games, they’re responsible for defrauding a LOT of people, and they’ll likely end up in jail like Tim Donaghy. So, they’ve given up quite a bit to get UF and Alabama into the BCS Championship game picture, haven’t they? And what have they gained by giving up all that? Nothing that I can think of. It seems like the only possible compensation they might’ve received for assuming all that risk is cash. But where’s the paper trail? In the end, I think the onus is on the conspiracy theorists to gather some kind of evidence to back up their claims. Without any evidence, it’s just speculation. And that’s not “reporting”, is it? Even sports journalists are responsible for following some kind of “good reporting standard”, aren’t they?

Statistics is 99% certain it knows the answer

Let’s take a look at some rudimentary analysis of the claim that Florida and Alabama “get all the calls” to help them win games.

It’s actually really easy to see who’s getting all the calls in the Florida and Alabama match-ups this season. I did some basic statistical analysis of the penalties called against Florida and Alabama relative to their respective opponents. I looked at total number of penalties called against, and total penalty yards assessed against each team. Here are the numbers (all of these are averages) through the end of the regular season:

UF: 6.5 penalties called against for 49.5 yards per game.

UF Opponents: 6.17 penalties called against for 50.17 yards per game.

Alabama: 5.25 penalties called against for 46.25 yards per game.

Alabama Opponents: 6.08 penalties called against for 51.33 yards per game.

So, on average UF is flagged .33 fewer times per game and is penalized .67 yards fewer per game. And, on average Alabama draws .83 fewer flags per game and is penalized 5.08 yards fewer per game.

It turns out that these differences are not statistically significant. Specifically, we I can say that I’m 99% confident that neither UF nor Alabama have fewer penalties and yards assessed per game than their respective opponents due to real world factors such as bias or skill.

I’ve been running the numbers for both teams every week since Week 6 of the season, and there has never been a statistically significant difference between either UF or Alabama and their respective opponents with respect to aggregate number of penalties and yards called against.

Ultimately, I think there are two factors at play here: first, the media feels compelled to generate stories; second, there is some observer bias and that is clouding the media’s judgment. I don’t think my first factor really needs any explanation. It’s pretty obvious that the media in general, and specifically the sports media, thrive on controversy, tragedy, intrigue, etc. They actively look for these types of stories and, occasionally, they manufacture them to keep viewers interested. But the second one isn’t explored very often. For example, after the Arkansas vs. UF game, there were many cries of conspiracy to get UF into the Championship game. But where were the cries when the refs blew four big calls in the Tennessee vs. UF game earlier in the year? That game was close all the way (at least on the scoreboard), and the refs called an excessive celebration penalty against Florida that they didn’t call in a similar situation against UT later, and they wrongly called intentional grounding against Florida and totally blew an obvious intentional grounding call against Tennessee later. But those plays are never mentioned when the conspiracy theories are being discussed. Only plays that support the theorists’ hypothesis are discussed.

Crazy week

About a month ago, I moved out here to work for a small software company. I no longer work for that software company… because we were acquired by a larger, public company. At first, I was a little nervous since I’m the new guy and the new guy is typically the first to go if there’s any kind of reduction in force. But, as I thought it over and spoke with my boss, I realized that I don’t have anything to worry about. First of all, the acquisition has been in the works for a few months, so they would’ve had to incur the cost of hiring me, moving me, etc., all while knowing they could let me go. Obviously, that wouldn’t make very much business sense and since I know the people I work for have a lot of business sense (they did just sell their company for a nice chunk of change, after all), I had to figure they wouldn’t make such a costly mistake. Also, a good friend of mine approached me about working there–I didn’t pursue the company so much as the company pursued me–and I couldn’t see my friend leading me to move out here, only to be canned a month later.

So, after a lot of thought and several excellent meals on my new company’s dime, I’m pretty sure I’m good to go. Really, the best thing is that I know have more career options since I now work for an 800-person company rather than a 40-person company. Before, the only vertical potential was basically my boss’ job, and I don’t think he’s going anywhere for a while. Now, there are several places I can go within the company, and I can probably get there relatively quickly since the company is growing very rapidly.

Florida Football winning, but battling silliness

It’s true that we’ve had some close wins against mediocre teams, and we’ve had some close wins against great teams. Our only loss was a close one to a good Auburn team on the road. I haven’t seen the strength of schedule numbers recently, but I’m guessing our schedule is one of the most difficult. So what I really don’t get is why USC is already being anointed as the one-loss team bound for the National Title game. They lost to an unranked Oregon State and they’ve only beaten two teams who were ranked at the time they played. True, if they win out, they will have played a pretty tough schedule, but they still don’t have to play a conference championship game, and they certainly won’t be playing any Top 5 teams in the next few weeks.

We’ve beaten two ranked teams (one Top 10) and our only loss is to a ranked team. We’ll also likely meet a Top 5 Arkansas in the SEC Championship Game. Another thing to consider is that the quality of opponent in the SEC is just better than that of the PAC-10. We’re a stronger conference, but because our teams play defense, we’re being called weak.

I just needed to get that off my chest. If we win out and don’t play for the title, I think we should offer to switch conferences with USC, Texas or some other “big” team for a season. That would be interesting.

Florida Football limping, sputtering to wins

Well, it’s been several weeks since I posted (I guess I’ll need to be more intentional with finding time to post), and the Auburn game remains our only loss. Our wins haven’t been impressive, but they have been wins, and we’re in the driver’s seat. Although a bye might be nice next week, I think it’s good that we’ll have a tune-up game against Western Carolina. We need to work on our offense and hopefully find some kind of rhythm. Our defense and special teams seem to be just fine. Actually, that’s a pretty big under statement… our defense and special teams are pretty awesome. They’re really the only reason we’ve won games since they just don’t allow other teams to put any points on the board.

I’m pretty tired so it’s time to wrap this up. We’re winning games and possibly en route to a National Championship appearance (thanks to some pretty big upsets today). I’ll take it.

Florida Football shoots self in foot

I’ve been meaning to write about Gator football for several weeks, but I’ve been distracted with changing careers and moving back to Gainesville. Anyway, here’s my assessment of the season so far:

We’re good. Really, really good. Our earlier games showed that we’re a strong team with talent on all sides of the ball (I’m lumping special teams in there, too). We’re tough and able to finish games, we have a very potent offense and our defense is stifling. The Chris Leak, Tim Tebow duo is easily one of the best quarterback rotations in the country right now (and is probably one of the better ones in Florida football history). It’s been really fun to watch this team improve and I think we’re the favorite to win the SEC right now.

All that being said, we stunk in the second half at Auburn. Auburn didn’t outplay us, they didn’t out hustle us, we beat ourselves by making several stupid mistakes. I think the first half showed how good we are and the second half showed how dumb we can be. We were clearly the better team and we just melted down in the second half. They brought more intensity, but we were our biggest enemy. Their offense scored only three points in the second half, but our special teams gave up the winning touchdown.

I could rant about that for a while, but the bottom line is we made several stupid mistakes and it cost us. I think there’s a good chance we’ll play Auburn again in the SEC Championship and we’ll beat them by at least two touchdowns if we do (I feel like the magic number is 17 points, but I’m only predicting two touchdowns).

We coulda’ been a contender. We can still be somebody if we can win in ATL in December.