The Space Between Partiality and Conspiracy

Note: this is not a match review. There are plenty of those to be found on the internet, and since I’m on about 3 hours of sleep in the past 72, I don’t really have the focus and drive necessary to sift through all of that. This is instead a few scattered thoughts on refs, bias, and the difference (and distance) between partiality and conspiracy.

Just after the hafltime whistle blew yesterday at the RSP, and as both teams walked back to their respective tunnels, Barca superstar, millionaire, and unanimous best player in the world (and just-trying-to-be-a-good-guy!!!) Leo Messi pulled the ref aside and continued his club’s proud tradition of covering one’s mouth to say things one would be embarrased to have overheard. He may well have been asking for directions to the nearest Wendy’s, but it seems likely he wanted to talk to the ref about how the game was being called. There is of course nothing wrong with that—players do it all the time—but it was striking all the same. What could Messi have possibly had to say to that ref, and why did he feel he needed to say it?

There’s been a lot of discussion since the game about the perceived fairness of officiating in that game, and in others in La Liga. And on the big two side there’s been a lot of non-sequitir discussion of how silly it is to think there is a conspiracy to benefit these teams. What follows is not a discussion of whether or not yesterday’s calls were fair or accurate. This is not a discussion really of whether or not games are, on the whole, fair. This is a discussion of how refs can be biased in a setting in which there are no conspiracies, of how unfair things can happen even in a completely fair setting.

Basically everyone who watched the man play and thinks very much about the sport agrees that refs called the game differently for Michael Jordan than they did for pretty much everyone else in the NBA. No one claims this means he wasn’t one of the greatest of all time or that his Bulls were somehow less legendary, but similarly no one seriously suggests that a foul on Michael Jordan was the same as a foul on his lesser-known contemporaries. Only idiots and Knicks fans suggest this is evidence of a conspiracy; rather, it’s obvious that MJ’s talent, fame, significance to the league, and singularity served to create an informal, different set of rules. These rules weren’t codified, they weren’t intentionally created, and the league didn’t send letters to refs telling them how to make Jordan look better; they just came to exist. The same phenomenon can be seen around superstars in every sport—quarterbacks who are protected just a bit more vigorously than their peers, pitchers and hitters whose strike zones expand and shrink, etc. This is a fact of sports, and of life: refs are human beings impacted by more than a rule book. Their job is of course to fight these other factors and be as impartial as possible, and some refs are better at it than others (we call the better ones “good refs”) but just as no one does their job perfectly, so too do refs more or less consistently fail at theirs.

It would be lunacy to suggest the same does not happen with Leo Messi and other megastars in soccer, and it’s something even dumber to say acknowledging that reality is akin to claiming conspiracy. Of course big stars are given more leeway, and their opponents less. When people observe that it takes a LOT for a Barca player to get called for a foul, they’re not saying that the LFP is pulling for the club, they’re simply using their mouth to reflect the information their eyeballs have recorded. The big two are not unique in this respect, however they are unprecedented in that their league-subsidized financial advantage allows them to have best-in-the-world players at almost every position. It’s not just Messi clamoring for you to call the game the way he sees it, it’s Xavi, Iniesta, Villa, Alves…a veritable all-star cast of greats any sane human being would find themselves subconciously swayed by. (You were about to say something about how in the LFP these are trained professionals, not just normal people. And then you remembered that this is the LFP. And that you regularly complain about how terrible they are. And that for the most part these officials are semi-pro, requiring a second job to supplement their income. Because as we’ve noted here, they’re perfectly fallible human beings. And also they are employed by gloriously incompetent people.) You could say there is a conspiracy that starts with the LFP funneling huge amounts of money into two select teams, causing them to have such a surfeit of these influential players that this kind of informal bias is basically inevitable, but we don’t usually call blindingly obvious things done in broad daylight conspiracy; we just call those things facts.

If you’re a Barca fan and you find it hard to accept these facts, consider whether you feel or have ever felt that Mourinho’s constant whining about ref decisions at every press conference for three years has ever impacted the degree to which his team is allowed to play an extremely physical game when it suits him. Obviously the refs aren’t in the tank for Mou or RM; they’re simply impacted by the narrative Mou’s been spinning. If you’ve observed that effect then you understand on some level that this happens; now all that’s left is to realize it also benefits you! In keeping with each respective team’s desire or indifference to seem spotless, whereas Mou does this in public behind a microphone, Barca attempts to bend the ref to their will on the field, away from mics, and occasionally behind obscuring hands.

So yes, I do believe that the big two often benefit from calls. And no, I don’t believe that this is the result of a conspiracy, or Villarato, or any other such nonsense. It’s simply that I’ve noticed the game is played and officiated by humans.