In the fourth quarter of the Oct. 29 football game between No. 3 Clemson and 12th-ranked Florida State, the Seminoles were thinking upset. FSU led 28-26 when star tailback Dalvin Cook ripped off a 50-yard run into Clemson territory.
Then came a penalty flag for an illegal block, negating the play. FSU Coach Jimbo Fisher stormed the sideline, screaming at the officials, dropping an apparent F-bomb. Then came another flag, for unsportsmanlike conduct. FSU punted. Clemson escaped with a 37-34 win.
Fisher resumed his tantrum at a postgame press conference, blasting the game’s officials as “gutless” and “wrong.” Eyes bulging, Fisher said, “You hold coaches accountable [and] players accountable—hold the damn officials accountable.” The Atlantic Coast Conference, which includes both FSU and Clemson, later fined Fisher $20,000.
Blaming the zebras is hardly novel. But Fisher’s tirade revived a question that has taken on greater significance in the era of lucrative college football playoffs: Do officials paid by the top NCAA conferences slant their calls—even if only unconsciously—to help their employers’ top teams? New research suggests the answer is yes.
Unlike in NCAA basketball, which draws referees from pools overseen by groups of conferences, most football referees are hired, trained, rewarded, and disciplined by individual conferences. That means officials are entrusted with making decisions that could hurt their employers—as with the call in the Clemson-FSU game. Clemson was the ACC team with the better shot at making the College Football Playoff and the financial bonanza it dangles.
“This is an incestuous situation,” says Rhett Brymer, a business management professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He spent more than a year parsing almost 39,000 fouls called in games involving NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the 2012-2015 seasons. His research finds “ample evidence of biases among conference officials,” including “conference officials showing partiality towards teams with the highest potential to generate revenue for their conference.”
It’s potentially a big deal now that the playoff has become such a rich source of cash for the Power 5 conferences that supply the teams: the Big Ten, Pac-12, Big 12, Southeastern Conference, and ACC. Those conferences split about $275 million in bowl-season television money, and get paid an additional $6 million for each of their teams that qualify for the four-team playoff, plus $2.16 million for expenses. That’s on top of money for game tickets and merchandise, as well as the recruiting bump that can help schools return to the playoff year after year (see Alabama).
The Miami of Ohio research offers no evidence that specific officials intentionally skewed game outcomes. Nor does it assert that conferences would try to manipulate the part-time, independent contractors who officiate for $2,000 to $2,500 a game.
Brymer’s data suggest something more insidious. Across the 3,000-odd regular-season and bowl games he studied, a bit less than half of the fouls called were what he terms “discretionary”—holding, pass interference, unsportsmanlike conduct, and personal fouls like roughing the passer. Refs were on average 10 percent less likely to throw discretionary flags on teams that enjoy both strong playoff prospects and winning traditions. Brymer calls these teams “protected flagships.”
Protected flagships in the Big Ten did especially well with officials, the research shows. Ohio State, the conference’s most competitive flagship team in the years Brymer studied, was 14 percent less likely to be dinged for a discretionary foul than, say, Purdue, a non-flagship team with little chance of contending for a national title. The Buckeyes fared even better with refs in 2014, when it made the first-ever formal playoff and won the national championship on Jan. 12, 2015.
Rogers Redding, national coordinator for NCAA football officiating, says referees are human but unfailingly scrupulous. “I can unequivocally say that I have never seen any sign of bias on the part of officials at any level,” says Redding, who officiated NCAA football for 18 years.
While admitting “my bias is to be defensive about this,” Redding faults Brymer’s research for failing to account for whether the fouls analyzed were correctly called. “Some teams are just better” at avoiding penalties, he says. The study also doesn’t establish a baseline from which to judge variations in calls, Redding says. “What’s the expectation of the number of fouls that would be called in the absence of bias? We don’t know.”
NCAA refs undergo training year-round, from spring practice scrimmages to fortnightly videos prepared by Redding. “This is an avocation,” he says, with refs dreaming of being selected to work a bowl game or, the pinnacle, a national championship. Botching penalty calls can cost refs those opportunities—and their jobs. Spokespeople for the Power 5 conferences either declined to comment or didn’t respond to interview requests.
Barry Mano, founder and president of the 22,000-member National Association of Sports Officials, wishes Brymer had included fouls like offsides and such decisions as ball spots. “Very few things in officiating aren’t discretionary,” he says. However, Mano concedes that officials could be susceptible to unconscious pressures and thinks it reasonable to consider moving refs out from under conference control. “The perception of our impartiality is important,” he says.
If one assumes zero bias on the part of on-field officials, Brymer says, his data should show greater consistency among calls. Instead, “where officials from some conferences are systematically calling it one way, other conference officials call it another way. Individual people and crews will have their own idiosyncratic ways of calling games. But this is more than that.” The refs are subject to the scrutiny of large organizations, he says, “which we in business all know is subject to money and power.”
As an assistant professor at Miami of Ohio’s Farmer School of Business, Brymer, 43, usually writes about such esoterica as the use of human capital in corporations. He grew up in Florida, and became a Florida State fan when he lived on the same block as legendary Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden. Brymer was in the stands for the 2003 “Swindle in the Swamp,” when ACC refs were pilloried for questionable calls that helped his team beat archrival Florida.
While earning his Ph.D. at Texas A&M, he came to sympathize with Aggie fans who believed that all close calls favored the University of Texas. “I reached a breaking point,” Brymer says. Weary of fans whining about refs without empirical evidence, he decided to see if he could find any. “At least I’m bringing myself peace,” he says.
Earlier research he presented at an MIT sports analytics conference drew criticism from the NCAA’s Redding. In an e-mail exchange, Redding told Brymer the study oversimplified things by merely using total penalty yards to gauge bias, without accounting for the different types of fouls called or other factors.
Seeking a more precise measuring stick, Brymer bought four years of data—38,871 penalties, including offsetting and declined calls—from SportSource Analytics, a firm that provides data to the committee that chooses the four playoff teams. Working with Miami business students Mickey Whitford and Michael Macey, he analyzed it against half a dozen variables, including home field, the Las Vegas betting line, and “game outcome uncertainty,” which discounts fouls called in blowouts while accounting for tight games in which refs might be reluctant to toss late flags.
Brymer accounted for officiating crews from different conferences and distinguished games between conference foes from those between teams from different conferences. (The away team’s conference usually provides the on-field officials.) He defined flagship teams as those with an all-time winning percentage above 60 percent and protected teams as those ranked highly in Associated Press polls.
The results show significant variations in penalty calls among conferences and seasons. Pac-12 officials showed the most erratic tendencies, swerving from favoring protected flagship teams in 2012-14 to punishing them in 2015. Playoff contenders lacking the flagship label—such as Wisconsin this year—often draw more subjective penalties than flagship teams, like Michigan, that also happen to generate healthy revenue.
Some of the study’s conclusions defy more-cynical views. For instance, teams favored by Vegas tended to get significantly more discretionary calls against them than underdogs. Ref-baiters might be distressed to learn that the SEC—winners of eight of the last 10 national titles—appears to have the least biased officials.
ACC refs actually worked against their top teams in 2012, with discretionary calls against them making up 56 percent of penalties, vs. 41 percent for less-competitive squads. The 56 percent dropped sharply over the next three years, during which two flagships—Clemson and Florida State—went undefeated through the ACC championship game. FSU won the national title after the 2013 regular season.
With a per-game average of about 13 penalties, the alleged bias might apply to only one or two fouls. But a single call or no-call can be disastrous, as Michigan State fans can painfully attest. Last year, the Spartans lost to Nebraska on a controversial touchdown pass to a receiver who stepped out of bounds—illegally, to MSU partisans—before the catch.
Brymer argues that the conferences should yield oversight of officials to an independent national body or regional pools, as with basketball. Redding says, “That’s a reasonable question to ask” but the conferences have worked hard to standardize officiating practices and “are happy with what they’ve got.” Retired Big Ten ref and current ESPN analyst Bill LeMonnier says it wouldn’t hurt to assign more third-conference officiating crews—a Pac-12 group for Alabama vs. Penn State, for instance—especially in big games. “If that eliminates the perception, it’s worth doing,” LeMonnier says.
Last Saturday’s Michigan-Ohio State classic underscored again the outsize role refs can play in big games. After Michigan’s 30-27 loss, Coach Jim Harbaugh said he was “bitterly disappointed” in officials, citing among other things a borderline pass interference call that extended a late Ohio State drive. Both teams came into the game as protected flagships, but Harbaugh might think the Buckeyes were a little more protected than the Wolverines.
Ivan MaiselESPN Senior WriterClose
- Senior college football writer
- Six-time FWAA award winner
- Graduate of Stanford University
Follow on Twitter
Editor's note: ESPN.com senior writer Ivan Maisel was embedded with the Big 12 Conference officiating crew that worked the Oklahoma State-Texas A&M game from the time they arrived at their hotel in College Station on Friday until they left Kyle Field on Saturday night.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The Hullabaloo Diner in nearby Wellborn sits on an FM (farm-to-market) road about 10 minutes south of Kyle Field. It is a happy marriage of a roadside joint and Texas cuisine, which is to say that the chicken fried steak is the size of a laptop and the Shiner Bock is cold.
Well, it's probably cold. The party of 12 at the tables that run along the south end of the diner isn't drinking anything stronger than lemonade. What passes for cutting loose at the tables crammed with Big 12 Conference football officials are two platters of Elvis fries, which are french fries glopped with sausage cream gravy and cheddar cheese. If you order 10 platters, you get a free angioplasty.
"We eat healthy the rest of the week," Scott Novak said.
Novak, a sales representative in the Denver area, has been the referee of this crew for three seasons. No one at the Big 12 will say that Novak's seven-man crew is the best. But in the first four weeks of the season, they have worked the best games: LSU-Oregon, Oklahoma State-Arizona, Oklahoma-Florida State and now, Oklahoma State-Texas A&M.
Novak assigns each of the other six officials a task. One handles the hotel, one the weekly Big 12 rules test, etc. Field judge J Taylor, one of four crew members who live in the Dallas area, picks the restaurant. He is a walking Zagat's for the Big 12 footprint. This season, Taylor is using the Food Network show "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" as a guide. That's how the group ended up in Wellborn.
Dinner arrived, and umpire Mike Cooper viewed his entrée with suspicion. The pasta dish with chicken doesn't match what Cooper had in mind. "We need a menu with pictures," he said.
Novak is a firm believer that dinners like this one help meld an officiating crew, although this crew needs no help. Not only did the four Dallas guys make the three-hour drive together, but head linesman Mike Moeller flew from Kansas City to Dallas so he could ride with them. They must like each other.
That's important, because good officiating demands a seamless weave of responsibilities among the crew members. For instance, Novak, the referee, and Cooper, the umpire, work hand-in-glove to control the game at and around the line of scrimmage.
"Coop knows what to look for," Novak said "He can read my facial expression. He knows my hand gestures: substitutions, ball mechanics, hurry-up routines. That helps us. We just know where [each other is] going to be."
Novak can read Cooper, too. The chicken fried steak Novak ordered is sitting in front of him. He decided to bail out his umpire.
"If you want mine," Novak said, "I'll eat yours."
Cooper's plate is sizzling. "If I pass you this, I'll burn my hands," he said. He looked at back judge Corey Luxner, sitting to his right. "Here," Cooper said, thrusting the plate at him to give to Novak, "you don't handle the ball."
Luxner, 35, is the new guy. Novak's crew has had a different back judge each season, which makes Luxner the equivalent of the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor at Hogwarts.
Dinner ended -- no dessert -- and the crew piled into vans and cars to return to the hotel. The Friday night meeting is their weekly off-field work session. Before they left Dallas, Taylor drove to the conference office to pick up the crew's packet (Taylor, a captain in the Irving Fire Department, has been known to take the company car -- a fire engine -- to get the packet). It included grade sheets and video from the Oklahoma-Florida State game, a rules test and the paperwork that each official must file after every game detailing the fouls he called.
Officials live and die by the grades they receive. Grades determine whether they get postseason assignments, whether they ascend to -- cue the organ music -- the NFL or whether they get rehired. Most of the plays highlighted by evaluator Byron Boston, who is an NFL official, are praised for a job well done. However, he scolded them for "too many basic errors in this game for a veteran crew."
The criticism is digested and explained away. As they watch one call that Boston believes the crew missed, line judge Walt Coleman said, "That's tough at full speed, so don't worry about it."
They are generous in their support of each other. After the video and the test, Novak goes around the room and each crew member gives a quick reminder or inspirational nugget for the day to come.
"If we screw up, it's done," Novak said. "If we get it right, it's done. If something doesn't feel right, get it right. At the end of the day, we just want to be right. It's going to be hot. Stay hydrated. We had a lot of noise last week. You're going to hear more. You've really got to stay in the game."
"Let's be the best team out there," Coleman said.
At their essence, the officials see themselves as the third team on the field. They share traits with the other teams. They wear uniforms. They stay in shape 12 months of the year. Their performance is graded by their "coaches." And they watch film of the other teams.
On Saturday, they meet for breakfast in the hotel restaurant at 8:30 a.m. and commandeer a table in the middle of the dining room. Novak sits at the head of the table. To his right are Taylor and Coleman, who work a sideline together. To his left are Moeller and side judge Freeman Johns, who work the other sideline together. At the opposite end of the table is Luxner, the back judge. Only Cooper, the umpire, is out of position. He is sitting at the far end, next to Luxner.
Coleman, 32, is the youngest member of the crew. He is a legacy. His father, also named Walt, is an NFL official. Coleman started working Dallas high school games while an undergraduate at SMU. His body is a cross between a long-distance runner and a gymnast. With his official's hat pulled down low and his clean-shaven face, he doesn't look 32.
The week before, on the field at Doak Campbell Stadium, a Florida State coach pointed to Coleman and asked Taylor, "How old is that guy?"
"He's 48," Taylor deadpanned. "He looks young for his age."
Taylor and Coleman have worked the same sideline for five seasons. Taylor, as the field judge, lines up 20 yards downfield from the line of scrimmage. He eyeballs wide receivers and defensive backs. At breakfast Saturday, he brought up Texas A&M wide receiver Jeff Fuller, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound senior.
"He's a man-child," Taylor said. "We were talking about it on the way down here. A lot of times, it looks like he's holding, but he's not. He's so strong they can't get away from him. You've got to look at kids like him differently, because they're overpowering kids."
After making their way to the stadium, the officials walk the field. It's not merely a ritual. Johns checks the position of the sun in the cloudless sky and makes a note to remind the special-teams coaches that a punt returner may shield his eyes from the sun. However, once he waves that arm, it's a fair catch.
"Preventive officiating," Johns said. "You might prevent throwing a flag. I would love to have a game where I don't throw a flag."
The crew goes back through the northeast tunnel to Room N160 in Kyle Field. It is the Red Cashion Locker Room, named for the 1953 Texas A&M graduate who officiated for many years in the NFL. An autographed photo of Cashion hanging on the wall reads "Be sure. Have fun."
The men change into their uniforms and begin their physical rituals. Luxner starts running in place, earbuds delivering tunes. Novak, looks at him and brings up the song "Maniac" and Jennifer Beals, who danced in place to the song in the 1983 movie "Flashdance." That's a little old for Coleman and Luxner. The older guys start throwing out songs that everyone might know, and before you know it they are singing together.
"Come and listen to a story about a man named Jed "
Yes, the officiating crew of the most important game in college football warmed up by singing the theme from "The Beverly Hillbillies."
Like quarterbacks, receivers or any other player, each official brings his distinct style to the position. On one sideline, Taylor backpedals downfield play after play. He estimated that he will run seven miles during the game, 40 yards at a time, backward. On the other sideline, Johns runs sideways then turns to face the action, leaning in from the waist up. He looks like a commuter searching for the 6:24 train to Grand Central.
Between plays, the officials communicate via hand and arm signals, a dialect somewhere between American Sign Language and semaphore, the flag signals grounds crews use at airports. For instance, Coleman, the line judge, will twirl his index finger in a circle to remind Novak to wind the play clock. Novak may be signaling to Moeller, the head linesman. When Novak scans the field and sees Coleman, he windmills his arm and the :25 clock begins.
The first half unwinds with little controversy. Late in the first quarter, Coleman made a split-second call on an Oklahoma State pass, calling it complete. When the replay showed on the videoboard in the south end zone and the ball appeared to hit the ground, Kyle Field erupted in boos.
In the locker room at halftime, with Texas A&M leading 20-3, Haynes, the red hat, calls over to Coleman. "Walt, the call on the sideline -- TV likes it."
They gulp water and Gatorade, towel off, and mostly sit for 10 minutes. Before they return to the field, Novak does 50 push-ups, just as he did right before the game started.
"More mental than anything," he said.
The sun begins to fall behind the west-side stands, and the sideline that Coleman and Taylor are working falls in the shadow. Oklahoma State scores a touchdown on the opening possession. After the extra point, Moeller and Novak converse briefly in the middle of the field.
"It's getting hot out here," Moeller said.
"Mo, you want me to see if you guys can switch sidelines?" Novak asked with a grin.
Oklahoma State quickly drives downfield again. Weeden throws an 11-yard pass to wide receiver Justin Blackmon at the front right pylon. Taylor, the field judge, is standing 3 yards away. He rules it incomplete. Terry Turlington, the replay official, buzzes Novak to let him know he is reviewing it. He overturns Taylor's call and Oklahoma State pulls within 20-17.
The Cowboys complete the comeback, take a 30-20 lead and hang on for the victory. They don't secure it until the final play, when Blackmon runs 39 yards backward to give the Aggies a safety and make the score 30-29.
Back in the locker room, the officials fist-bump each other. Luxner and Cooper give each other a congratulatory hug. They mostly look worn out. The game lasted 3 hours, 43 minutes. As they move in and out of the showers, Turlington, the replay official, arrives from the press box. A few minutes later, he is followed by Big 12 observer Jeff Lamberth, legal pad in hand. Lamberth, a Houston attorney, is an NFL official on the disabled list with a bad knee. He made 21 pages of notes that he will send to the league office.
Lamberth spent 30 minutes going over what he saw.
He turned his attention to the call Coleman made of the reception on the sideline.
"Tight pass you had on your sideline? It was a catch," Lamberth said. "But, let me ask a question: Who signaled catch?"
"I didn't," Coleman said, "because it wasn't sideline."
"I think you need to signal something, for Terry's benefit," Lamberth said. "When it's that tight, Walt, give a catch signal, so Terry up in replay is going to say 'Their ruling is catch.' We figured it out because you stood there and signaled time out. It's close enough to the sideline, just" -- Lamberth makes the catch signal. "It's absolutely a great call."
The session is mostly a lesson in appreciating what we take for granted. It's like hearing a Starbucks manager praising the baristas for making good coffee.
Lamberth gets to the third-quarter touchdown that Turlington reversed from the replay booth. Lamberth asked Turlington to describe his decision.
"He got the ball," Turlington said of Blackmon, the Cowboys receiver. "He separated his hands. He put the ball in his right hand. His foot came down in bounds. His second foot came down out of bounds, and there had been no contact. As he's out of bounds, the guy pushes him in the back. He follows on through two or three more steps, and the ball gets out. I'm not even sure he didn't flip it out. He definitely caught the ball in bounds and was out of bounds before anybody touched him."
"J, first of all, your mechanics were perfect," Lamberth said. "Look, guys, we've always said this. When deep guys are on the pylon, that's a whole different look than we see 99 percent of the game. So when we're on that pylon, we talk about this in our clinics, that's hard for us. The players are coming at a different angle. The officials are not running with them parallel. They are coming perpendicular. Positioning, you were perfect. I'm not worried about it. That's what replay is for."
Afterward, Taylor said, Blackmon blocked his vision of the defender, and he couldn't see what role the defender had in Blackmon going to the ground.
"Being competitive, you don't want to get overruled," Taylor said. "You want to get them right. I did what I was supposed to do. They [replay] did what they were supposed to do. We don't officiate to replay. We officiate the game. If something does go wrong, they will bail us out. If you ever get to where you are officiating to replay, that will send it in the wrong direction."
That's the attitude all officials learn over time to adopt. It preserves their sanity.
"Everybody wants to be perfect," Novak said. "When I got into this, the game would be over and I'd watch the game until 4 a.m. and I would beat myself up. I still do that, but I understand mistakes are part of the game. There are 170 plays in a game. You've got to work it one play at a time. It's a competitive game. You've got to learn how to focus 170 times, seven to 12 seconds, and then you start over. Be the best you can be. That's what you learn over time."
Of all the comments, jibes, analysis and gossip discussed by Novak's crew, the one comment that best captures how they view their work came as the men plopped down in their locker room at halftime.
Taylor, to no one in particular, asked, "What's the score, anyway?"
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.