Take their whistles! Sports referees show bias at every levels of athletics.

Katie Carita, Assistant Sports Editor

In sports, few things are more irritating than a one-sided referee, and the anger and frustration that comes along with apparently biased officials is intense for many athletes.

In high school sports, the typical referee does not begin games with bias for or against a certain team, but as the game continues, there are multiple factors that sway the favoritism of officials. Anything from the coach’s behavior to the rowdiness of the crowd can alter the referee’s viewpoint of a team, prompting them to call penalties that they might have let slide earlier in the game.
“I don’t think refs come into games being biased,” varsity boys’ basketball player and senior Elijah Ford said. “But their opinions change if a coach or player keeps arguing with them throughout the game.”
Inexperience can also bias referees toward teams. There is a difference in the level of play between youth, junior varsity and varsity sports, and for officials making the transition from one league to another, it can be difficult to differentiate between the varying skill levels. If one team is obviously playing more aggressively than their opponent, an amateur referee might mistake tenacious play for penalties.
“During our first game against Oakton [this season], we had a ref who was really inexperienced because he was previously a youth basketball referee,” varsity girls’ basketball player and junior Claire Roberts said. “He would call fouls that weren’t illegal and he was getting really angry with the noise of our crowd.”
Athletes who receive greater playing time are targeted by referees more than their teammates. The more prominent players are, the more willing a referee is to make calls for or against them. If a referee officiates more than one game for a team throughout the season, he or she sometimes will remember previously intense players and single them out during a game.
“I do think the refs will pay more to attention to you and possibly give you more fouls if you’re a [stronger] player, [if only] to contain that aggression and make sure it doesn’t escalate and spread to other players,” junior varsity boys’ soccer player and sophomore Dylan Lee said.
There also seems to be a distinct bias in how referees treat female athletes compared to the way they behave toward male athletes. In girls’ sports, many fouls are called because the referee feels that the player is being too aggressive, whereas in boys’ sports, the referee is often much more lenient when calling fouls.
“Referees are definitely more strict when it comes to calling fouls for girls,” varsity girls’ basketball player and junior Ashley Francis said. “I think everyone really underestimates girls’ sports. When guys play, they’ll be all over each other, but if a girl gives a little push, it’ll be a penalty and a big deal.”
Referees face additional scrutiny when crucial calls with dwindling game time directly impact the outcome of a competition. However, few athletes attribute a loss solely to referee bias. Many times, the players conclude that they could’ve made better decisions during the game or executed plays better.

“After a game, especially a loss, there’s always something you want to improve on,” varsity girls’ lacrosse player and junior Maeve Davis said. “When an official makes unfair calls, the only thing you can do is try to learn from it and improve for the next game.”