Pro-defense bias rears its ugly head on NBC telecast

By Paul Gardner

Goal line technology, GLT, received a well-deserved rebuff last week from MLS -- which has decided that it can do without GLT, at least for the moment. Much too expensive for a system that maybe gets used once a year.

So MLS, which has succumbed to the technological twaddle of the adidas miCoach paraphernalia, has made a very sensible stand against GLT.

It’s intriguing to look beyond the clever technology involved and the enormous cost that entails (reportedly over $250,000 per stadium) and go back to the basic questions: What is GLT supposed to do? Why is it considered necessary?

We are immediately in one of the sport’s least explicable areas, one where baffling bias and dubious tradition hold sway. The idea of GLT is that it will tell us, on every questionable occasion, immediately and with scientific accuracy, whether the ball has crossed the goal line.

Whether we have a goal or not, then. Just two alternatives to be sorted out -- either a genuine goal was disallowed, or a non-goal was awarded. Forty seven years ago we had the notorious incident of England winning the World Cup on a goal validated by that era’s version of GLT (he was called a linesman) -- when the ball may well not have crossed the line.

Since then -- and particularly with the more recent questionable calls that have been cited as evidence of the need for GLT -- virtually all the problems have been the other way round, dealing with genuine goals that were disallowed.

Bias is at work in this situation. When in doubt, deny the goal. Better worded -- make it as difficult as possible to score. Insist that every last micro-millimeter of the ball has crossed the line before awarding the goal -- a level of accuracy that cannot be achieved, so all close calls involve doubt. And the soccer tradition seems always content to give any benefit of doubt to the defending team.

Watch the referee at corner kicks. He knows -- and now we all know, thanks to those intimate TV replays -- that a general free-for-all precedes the kicks. Grabbing, holding, pushing, body-blocking are rife. Everyone is involved. Occasionally, the referee will call a foul ... common sense tells you that there should be a 50% chance of it going against the defending team. But when was the last time you saw a penalty kick given? The vast majority of these calls are given against the attacking team. The bias is clear.

It is necessary to be charitable to the referees here. They are part of a culture that seems to find it agreeable to allow defenders more license, much more license, than it grants to attacking players. They call games with that bias inbuilt. And they are not the only soccer people whose judgments are distorted by it.

Journalists are susceptible, my own experience tells me that. So too are TV commentators, many of whom are ex-players, and they tend to be among the worst offenders. Saturday’s Montreal-Chicago game presented a pretty good example of what I’m talking about. This was an NBC Sports Network game, with Arlo White and Kyle Martino as the commentators. Both have been settling rather well into their roles, which makes their comments during the game all the more regrettable. The main culprit here is Martino, the ex-player.

In the 63rd minute, Chicago’s Jeff Larentowicz was red-carded by referee Fotis Bazakos for tripping Montreal’s Andrea Pisanu and thus denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity. And Bazakos awarded Montreal a penalty kick.

Martino jumped in quickly and within 14 seconds had delivered his verdict: the referee had got it all wrong. The foul, if there was one, was outside the area, and anyway the Chicago goalkeeper Sean Johnson, racing out of his goal, would have got to the ball first, so there wasn’t an obvious goalscoring opportunity anyway -- “I think the call was wrong on all levels,” proclaimed Martino.

Martino was right about one thing -- the foul had occurred outside the area. But referee Bazakos quickly and efficiently corrected that -- after consulting his AR, he nixed the PK call and gave Montreal a direct free kick at the edge of the area.

Martino’s belief (it was nothing more than that) that Johnson would have got to the ball before Pisanu is highly doubtful, and is merely another instance of pro-defense bias. But by far the most objectionable part of Martino’s flimsy case was his attempt to absolve Larentowicz of any blame. In this, he was solidly supported by Arlo White.

According to Martino, Larentowicz was “actually trying to get out of the way” of Pisanu. White chimed in with an indignant “He [Larentowicz] was clearly trying to pull away ...”

They must have been watching some rather odd replays not available to the hoi polloi. When Pisanu broke away in midfield, at full speed, Larentowicz was a yard or two behind him. He gave chase, but never caught up -- he was always running behind Pisanu ... and, it became clear, was not going to catch him.

Yet Martino had Larentowicz “trying to get out of the way” -- of Pisanu, who is running away from him. How does that work, Kyle?

Nor was this a case of Pisanu cutting in front of Larentowicz; Pisanu was ahead from the get-go, and making a straight-line course for the penalty area and the goal.

What both White and Martino seem to be saying is that Larentowicz was trying to avoid contact with Pisanu. But if Larentowicz truly wanted to avoid contact all he had to do was to slow down and allow Pisanu to continue his run. Or Larentowicz could have peeled away to his right, where there was open space. But Larentowicz chose to go left, to run across the space behind Pisanu ... and so, surprise, surprise, Larentowicz clipped Pisanu’s heel and brought him down. And, surprise, surprise again, the contact occurred just before Pisanu got into the area.

Oh, come on Kyle, come on Arlo, pull the other one. This has to be one of the most common scams pulled by defenders trying to disguise a trip.

Eventually, after about three minutes of equivocation, Martino was admitting that there may well have been “a little clipped heel,” then muddying the waters by telling us how difficult it was for the referee to decide whether that was intentional or not (which happens to be totally irrelevant as it is not a decision that the referee has to make), until finally resting his case on its weakest prop, his claim that goalkeeper Johnson would have got to the ball first.

All of that confusion -- confusion that involves totally unjust criticism of referee Bazakos -- springs from Martino and White, two knowledgeable and experienced soccer commentators, falling into the trap of wanting to give the benefit of the doubt to the defender.

More laughably, it leaves us -- well, OK, me -- eagerly awaiting an explanation of how, by what contortions of language or spatial relationships, or of common sense, a player can be “trying to get out of the way of” an opponent who is running away from him.

10 comments about "Pro-defense bias rears its ugly head on NBC telecast".
  1. Kent James, April 29, 2013 at 1:40 a.m.

    As a referee, it is less noticeable to miss a foul than to call a wrong foul, especially for penalty kicks. Additionally, referees are trained to try to avoid unduly influencing a game, and calling fouls is more overt influence than not calling fouls. So these structural biases happen to benefit the defense (which is more frequently committing fouls in areas that can have an outcome on the score). So I'm not sure it's a conscious decision to benefit the defense as much as it is the nature of the game. I think referees need to overcome these structural biases, since not calling fouls can certainly have a negative influence on a game. But soccer culture being what it is, there is a strong bias towards "letting them play", which results in referees calling fewer fouls. Someday, I would like to see referees call all that clutching and grabbing in the box on corners kicks; if they cracked down on it, it would be ugly for a while (an unusual number of PKs), but players would adjust. As it is, it's ridiculous. But of course, no referee acting alone could change that, it has to be done all at once. Maybe some day....

  2. Martha Diop, April 29, 2013 at 6:33 a.m.

    I do not know what the issue is. If, by the nature of the game (and maybe of human being) there is a structural bias, then as long as it affects BOTH teams, I do not see any problem.
    The only problem would be if the bias consistently affects (positively or negatively) the SAME team during the game
    Unless I am missing something.

  3. Jim Williams, April 29, 2013 at 9:02 a.m.

    The issue is the sport is giving too much benefit of the doubt to defense and not enough to offense. Just the opposite of what it should be.

  4. Ronnie j Salvador, April 29, 2013 at 10:04 a.m.

    I don’t think the article takes issue with the call made by Bazakos? The article takes issue with the commentators. It’s my belief the commentators know the rules and realize that referees aren’t required to be mind readers [as in determine intent]. However, it’s likely broadcast management has instructed the announcers to act as they do, based on the market surveys done to the target audience. If you compare the complaints on official’s calls with MLS games versus what commentators do with NBA, NFL, and MLB games…those other pro leagues seldom see commentators vehemently disagree with the calls.
    In regards to refs who ‘let them play’ vs those that call it tight: there will always be inconsistencies with how refs and leagues interpret the LOTG. This happens at the rec level all the way to the pros [e.g. EPL lets them ‘play’ much more than Spain or Italy]. What players look for is consistency within a game, and it’s the player's job to adjust to how the game is called.

  5. feliks fuksman, April 29, 2013 at 10:26 a.m.

    Let them play, by all means, if players want to play; nevertheless, call it tight and protect the players if it's the other way around!

  6. Millwall America, April 29, 2013 at 10:30 a.m.

    I'm not sure I want the refs to crack down on the aggressive fouling during corner kicks. My sense is that the end result of cracking down would be many more goals scored from corner kicks, which would make the game much more about set pieces rather than scoring from open play. Ronnie j Salvador -- good comment.

  7. beautiful game, April 29, 2013 at 11:17 p.m.

    M. America, surely you are joking...95% of MLS players can't put the ball on frame when they have an open header.

  8. Peter Skouras, April 30, 2013 at 10:13 a.m.

    I w Nowozeniuk true! However, GLT? For what? For a "controversial" goal that will send MLS sides "down" the NASL? United States soccer is not that serious people! When you have Promo/Relegation then GLT might become an issue...until then, yes Mr. I w Nowozeniuk...let's concentrate on "hitting the target!"

  9. Ramon Creager, April 30, 2013 at 9:31 p.m.

    I think there really are two issues here: how referees call the game in the goalmouth, and announcers who don't bother to learn the rules, and who can't seem to keep imposing their biases on viewers. First, the goal mouth scrambles. I generally disagree with Mr. Gardner on this. The problem (and this one was really evident in a Celtic v. Barca game in the UCL group stages) is that the attacking team has taken to using tactics to impede the goalkeeper and other defenders. The rules are quite clear on this (Law 12, indirect free kick); you are entitled to your position, but you are *not* entitled to impede an opponent if not within playing distance of the ball. What referees are doing is not "protecting the goalkeeper", they are enforcing a basic law. And defenders often resort to shielding the GK, because they cannot count of the referee to do the right thing every time. This explains a lot of the jostling, and the fact that refs tend to call fouls on offensive players. As for the announcers, really, the quality has to improve. They generally are awful, not up with the laws, and unable to keep their biases out of the equation. Just today I was forced to put up with English announcers on Fox who just couldn't keep their yaps shut about what a great ref Howard Webb is, and how he did the right thing when he (twice!) didn't show a yellow in a situation where the rule demanded one. I'll use a Spanish language broadcast whenever possible--they typically don't have these problems.

  10. Andrzej Kowalski, May 7, 2013 at 7:56 p.m.

    In international games referees are always on big federation side, because the big federation can block the referee asignments in the games in the future. The best example was in 2002 WC US vs Germany, German player Printz ( now in Toronto ) stopped ball that went into empty net using his hand and referee who was watching this did nothing.

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