March 14, 2002
Keeping the Game Close
NIU researcher says national TV spotlight
linked to how refs call college hoops
DeKalb, Ill.- In a new study that would seem to confirm
the suspicions of every college basketball fan who ever
griped over officiating, a Northern Illinois University
researcher is whistling a foul on the referees.
Kendall Thu, a faculty member in NIU's Department of
Anthropology, says his study detects an unusual foul-call
pattern in NCAA Division I officiating. However, it isn't
the screaming of home-court fans that influences referees,
but rather the presence of a national television spotlight.
"Referees tend to keep nationally televised games
close by calling a significantly higher number of fouls
against teams that are ahead in the score," Thu said.
"This results in more competitive games that maintain
an edge of suspense for viewers. Interestingly, we don't
find the same pattern in games televised on a regional
In the games televised on national networks and analyzed
by Thu, referees called 58 percent of the fouls against
the leading (footnote)
team (excluding calls during the last two minutes of each
half and tie-game situations). Thu's study results are
published as the lead article in the spring edition of
"Human Organization," the flagship journal of
the Society for Applied Anthropology (on the Web at http://www.sfaa.net/).
The study suggests that the evolution of college athletics
into big business might alter the way in which rules are
enforced. "The rules of fair play may actually be
the rules of keeping the game close in order to create
a product for spectatorship in a very commercialized setting,"
It's not unusual for cultural anthropologists to apply
scientific methods of study to sports, which is one of
about 70 traits found in all known cultures.
Anthropologists have a slightly different perspective
that allows us to see this sort of 'exotic reality' in
the midst of the mundane," Thu added. "Anthropologists
do this all the time, it's just that the topic of basketball
might happen to capture greater public interest than other
Thu got the idea for the foul-call analysis more than
a decade ago while pursuing graduate studies at the University
of Iowa. "I've always been a basketball fan,"
he says. "Fellow faculty and students would always
grumble about foul calls. I wanted to know if their perceptions
had any merit."
Thu's initial game observations indicated the topic was
worth pursuing. But when he contacted the NCAA and Big
10 Conference officials, he found little long-term data
on officiating. "I was amazed because there's so
much in the way of statistics kept on teams and players,"
After arriving at NIU in 1999, Thu enlisted help for
his project from anthropology graduate students Kelly
Hattman, Vance Hutchinson and Scott Lueken and undergrads
Nathan Davis and Elmer Linboom. All are co-authors on
the study, titled "Keeping the Game Close: 'Fair
Play' Among Men's College Basketball Referees."
From Jan. 5 to April 3, 2000, Thu and his students spent
hundreds of hours recording 67 televised games and logging
2,441 foul calls. At first blush, there appeared to be
little difference in the proportion of foul calls against
leading versus trailing teams. However, it became apparent
that the last two minutes of each 20-minute half accounted
for special circumstances-fully two-thirds of fouls went
against the more aggressive trailing team.
"The last two minutes of each half, particularly
the last two minutes of the game, reflect a distinct period
because trailing teams are more likely to commit blatant
fouls that can't be ignored by referees," Thu said.
When the researchers excluded the last two minutes of
each half, they found a different pattern entirely. The
average number of foul calls against the leading team
was 16.1 per game, compared to 13.3 against the trailing
Next, the games were grouped into three types of television
coverage-national TV networks, the primary ESPN network
and regional telecasts. The researchers worked with the
expectation that foul calls would be evenly distributed
between leading and trailing teams. Excluding the final
two minutes of each half and tie-game situations, the
results were as follows:
- During 15 games televised on national networks, the
researchers observed 478 foul calls. Leading teams were
whistled for 58 percent of the fouls or on average 5.3
more fouls per game than the trailing team. (footnote)
- During 25 games televised on ESPN, the researchers
observed 709 fouls. Leading teams were whistled for
55 percent of the fouls or on average 2.8 more fouls
- During 27 games televised regionally, the researchers
observed 782 fouls. Leading teams were whistled for
53 percent of the fouls or on average 1.5 more fouls
"This last instance was the only case where our
original statistical expectation that fouls would be about
evenly split was correct," Thu said.
"There's something funny going on," he added.
"It's improbable that our findings would be attributable
to random chance. For the nationally televised games we
examined, the likelihood of the proportion of fouls being
skewed to this extent by chance is three out of 1,000."
The findings appear counterintuitive to what fans might
expect. "Trailing teams would seem more likely to
take risks and be more aggressive. So you would think
they would be whistled for fouls more often," Thu
said. "Also, teams are coached to avoid silly fouls
when they're leading."
Thu said he hopes the study will be a catalyst for further
"I must underscore that we are not suggesting impropriety
on the part of referees," he said. "I don't
think referees are being paid off, and I don't think they
are in the pockets of corporate television. Our study
did not attempt to identify the mechanism by which this
foul-call pattern occurs. The links might be very subtle,
or even subconscious."
Thu also examined foul calls against both home and visiting
teams. He found that referees called 51.8 percent of the
fouls against the visiting team, versus 48.2 percent on
the home team. Thu said the slightly higher percentage
is not a statistically significant departure from the
assumption that fouls should be evenly distributed between
the two teams.