German study on officiating bias against tall players comes as no surprise to fans of USA, England


German research seems to support the believe that taller players like Oguchi Onyewu get called for more fouls

The New York Times reports on a German study that claims that tall players get called for more fouls than shorter players. An author of the study uses Philip Lahm as an example.

This doesn’t really come as a surprise to me just based on the purely subjective observation of two high-profile tall players – Oguchi Onyewu and Peter Crouch. Is there anyone out there who disagrees that Onyewu and Crouch are often called for large numbers of “soft” fouls especially in international play? With Crouch, referee (and total gasbag) Graham Poll says FIFA referees specifically targeted him before the 2006 World Cup.

I have a question for those who follow Italy and Germany more than I do. Does the same thing happen to other tall players like Luca Toni or Miroslav Klose?

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11 thoughts on “German study on officiating bias against tall players comes as no surprise to fans of USA, England

  1. I hate to be ‘that guy’ but much of the raw data in the study, according to the abstract, comes from the Bundesliga. The three sources were the last 7 seasons of the Bundesliga, the UCL, and the last three WCs. (And you figure the Budesliga has more games in a season than a UCL, and there’s a whole lot more games in 7 B’Ligas than 3 WCs.)

    So I figure while not perfect (no Italy except through CL) that already answers your question better than any opinionated response would. (After all, the subject of the study was already bias, so who’s to say the poster isn’t going to share the bias of the refs?)

  2. Was a study required to figure this out? Any time two people collide and one is eight inches and 100lbs heavier than the other, it goes in favor of the little guy. This alone has always made Gooch a liability, by no fault of his own. The benefit of the doubt always goes to the little guy..a.k.a. Me

  3. Another interesting question is whether small attacking players have a bias against them. The referee often seems reluctant to call a foul in favor of a smaller than average player who gets knocked off the ball, probably attributing the cause to physical stature rather than the foul of the opponent.

  4. @ Stan – choosing the Bundesliga as the main source of games is not being biased. They were German researchers and not surprisingly chose the league they were likely most familiar with. They might not have had time to collect data from every single league in the world in order to have a perfectly balanced study. UCL and WC games provide a little balancing. I guess that its not only Germans who call more fouls on bigger people. Although I personally am not going to take the time to go through the data to confirm my results.

    A study doesn’t have to analyze every piece of available data in the world in order to be properly considered “unbiased”. They just ought to label their conclusions accordingly, for example…Bundesliga refs show bias against tall players, or WC refs show bias against tall people…or UCL refs show bias against tall players.

  5. No, I meant that the opic of the study was ‘bias’, in that it was trying to find if bias existed and quantify it.

    I was just saying that the study would measure the bias in the German game (since that was a big chunk of the data) better than we could figure it out.

  6. I’m trying to determine what methodology they would use to identify that there is bias against the taller guys. One hopes they didn’t go back and second-guess every call- substituting their own subjective (and untrained) opinions for those of the referee. No, one imagines they must have just compared the fouls, reasoning that, statistically, smaller guys will foul just as often as do taller ones. That is, they probably went looking for a smaller/taller fouler ratio of 50/50; and found taller guys getting called more often, hence, they found “bias”. I would argue they found an effect- taller guys certainly do get called more for fouls- but the source of that effect may not be bias; it may be that the way the game is played causes taller guys to have difficulty tackling smaller guys cleanly, or causes smaller guys to be able to tackle more effectively than bigger guys. (Statistically speaking, across that huge a data sample, not speaking of any individuals.) The link certainly doesn’t inform about the study.

  7. @ Stan – Oh I see your point and I misread what you had earlier wrote. You were commenting on the silliness of having people vote of whether they agree with the study or not.

  8. Wow…. putting Onyewu & Crouch in the same sentence? That is not fair… Crouch is World Class… Goochi is MLS caliber.

  9. You can link through to the study from the abstract, and it does indeed turn out that’s exactly what they did. They took all fouls called, and found that taller players were disproportionately likely to have been whistled for them. That does leave open the possibility that taller players simply commit more fouls–I’m a bit dubious that explains the whole difference, but it’s a fair point.

    One of the reasons I’m dubious is something that dawned on me recently, that’s probably one of those observations that could have occurred years ago, and that many probably know but just haven’t communicated: the longball doesn’t lose because it’s inherently bad strategy, it loses because the refs call the game in such a way as to make it much harder than the rules would make it seem.

    That’s because of a cognitive bias in favor of defenders when calling fouls. When an attacker is in the final third, things he does that get whistled (like making contact with the other player purely in order to hold his ground for an aerial ball) don’t tend to for a defender doing the same thing. If two players are both ‘going at it’ struggling for the ball, generally the result will be one favoring the defender (either no call, or a call against the attacking player).

    This is the old ‘don’t want to change the game’ fallacy (fallacy being that by not wanting to change the game, you are in fact changing it). The closer you get to the box, the more timid refs get about calling something against the defense that will give the offense a big reward (all the more so off a long ball, because of the perception that it wasn’t an attack that ‘deserves rewarding’ that way) unless you’re 100% sure. The penalty is the most extreme case.

    Same is true for offside. The mistaken calls run at least 2 or 3 to 1 in favor of the defense (that is, false positives), because refs don’t want to give the offense a mistaken breakaway.

    The common theme is refs subconsciously changing the game to reflect more the way they want it to be, one of cleverness and skill and not of raw brawn or speed.

  10. Short players have the advantage of low center of gravity, quick first step and maneuverability which are huge advantages in soccer.

    Players who bring size and strength to the game are not always able to use those attributes. They should have more leeway to hold off smaller players when in possession, or to use their size to win the ball, to compensate for lacking the maneuverability and quickness of the small players.

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