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When We Get Behind Closed Doors: Examining Bias In Sports Refereeing

Ahead of today’s game , manager Ange Postecoglou has commented on the problems with VAR. Referring to the contoversy around Conor Goldson’s somewhat spectacular handball and the decision not to award a penalty, he finally said what was on his mind. 


 Words which will be heard outside the cosy fiefdom of Scottish football…..


“I’ve seen people do all kinds of people doing mental gymnastics to come up with a reason that it’s not a penalty, which probably suggests it is. We should stop trying to find a reason that it’s not. If it wasn’t it would just be a simple explanation.

“It’s one of those things, and I don’t think it’s just confined to us as a club. I think there are other clubs in the same boat where it’s just really confusing now for players in the box to know what they can or can’t do, because it seems it changes depending on who is in charge of the decision-making process. There has been zero consistency in the decisions being made.

“My view on this and in 25 years of coaching and managing, I have always abided by the referees decision. You will be hard pressed to find me criticising any referee in my whole tenure as a manager, but I have always believed these things even themselves out because we make mistakes, players mistakes and referees make mistakes. Over a course of a season these things usually even themselves out 

“But with the introduction of VAR and the decisions that have gone against us in particular, there’s zero chance that’s going to even out by the end of the year. It’s just remarkable, we’ve had at least three major decisions go against us.

“We can say it just comes down to interpretation or whatever people want to say, but I guarantee you if that game finished 2-2 and Rangers were denied that decision, the talk this week would be about how that was a title-defining decision. Now, the fact that it wasn’t because we still have a reasonable result, as we have in all the other games like at Tynecastle or here at home when the decisions went against us, doesn’t mean we should ignore it.

That could be a team that gets relegated on a decision like that. It still needs highlighted and it still needs clarification.

“To go back to your original question, it’s a penalty in my mind. Before we even started introducing VAR, it’s always been a penalty. To be honest, there were only two saves in the game; one by Joe and one by Connor and that’s it.” 


 He was asked if he’d spoken to the SFA to seek clarity, and replied; 



“I’ve spoken to you, and whoever else is listening today. I don’t think thats my role and I’ve never seen that as my role.

“I have great respect for officials because they know their role better than I do. I have always said that it’s like, I wouldn’t expect a referee to come in here and tell me how to do my job.

“All I can do is try and convey what our side of the fence feels at the moment, and there is a great deal of confusion on what our players are supposed to do in the box. Is it hands behind the back, or is it hands behind the back, and yes in front of your face? Or is it yes in front of your face but not extended?

“That is not off the back of the interpretation of the law, that is off the back of decisions made. To me when you see such a vast inconsistency then there is obviously an issue that needs to be resolved. The best people to resolve it, I think are the officials.”



Now we all know it’s happening, and we all think we know why it’s happening. 


But there is , as usual, much more to it than meets the eye.



Schroedingers Cat has raised the bar when it comes to the perception of bias in the Scottish Refereeing community. Citing a couple of excellent academic papers, he looks at why it probably isn’t incompetence, but a combination of other factors….





When I scanned the web before going to bed on Wednesday evening, I saw the headlines regarding weapons being stored inside Ibrox.

“Typical”, I thought. “I expect no less from the Union Bear reprobates.

Low life of society and scum of the Earth”.


I had just had my unconscious bias confirmed. I was happy now (as, most likely, were many Celtic fans).

My mind sprung back to “The Offside Kyogo Goal” – the one against Hearts, when Crawford Allan took time from his holiday to espouse to Kenny McIntrye (a self-confessed Rangers fan) that mistakes can be made, implying that VAR will correct those mistakes. I (and most Celtic fans) have eagerly awaited Mr Allan reappearing to discuss the mistakes and oversights on VAR (including Michael Smith handball at Tynecastle) where Celtic were clearly disadvantaged and mistakes compounded by VAR, not corrected.


The silence is deafening. I’m going on a punt here that the reason for both action and inaction is not that Mr Allan is pro Heart of Midlothian but he is more anti-Celtic and has a preference to favour the new team on the South Side of the river.


Given his silence on VAR issues apparently favouring Rangers and not favouring Celtic, and the recent excellent data on penalties given in SPFL matches, my unconscious bias has just been confirmed again.


So, I did some research on this subject. As a science and engineering person, as I have grown older, I have become more intrigued with the mind rather than the molecule. Albeit for most of the “experts” dragged out after the recent Derby to discuss the penalty incidents, it would appear that both mind and molecule are of a similar size.


Unconscious bias is present in all of us. No exceptions.


There are several academic papers that have studied effects in football (see sources below) and I will take a few snapshots from the two mentioned.
Thomas Søbrik Petersen and Søren Sofus Wichmann wrote


(1)“Sports referees are not always as unbiased or impartial as they ideally should be. Studies have shown, for example, that in their decisions, referees seem to be biased against people of different race, gender or height or biased in favour of the home team. There is no doubt that such partiality work against official ideals of fairness and non-discrimination in sport. The problem with this is that being affected by implicit biases potentially causes the referees to make unfair decisions, with the result that some people are penalised disproportionately within the realm of sport. In this paper, we argue that sports organisations ought to require referees to undergo implicit bias testing as part of their mandatory training, in order to gain knowledge about biases and to take the proper
counter-measures to combat such biases.” 



The point on implicit bias testing is an excellent one but this must be aligned with the desired outcome of the paymasters. And therein lies the problem.

They also say

(1)“However, there is no doubt that the very nature of their work makes sport referees highly susceptible to making biased judgments.”


(1)“The problem is, of course, that being affected by implicit biases potentially makes the referees make unfair decisions, with the result that some people are penalised disproportionately within the realm of sport. Besides these observations, such unfair decisions create frustration and harm among, for example, the athletes, coaches and spectators.”  



I believe there is no need to comment on those two paragraphs. They speak for themselves.

It is generally recognised that when an individual has implicit bias, they tend to shape the outcome of that bias to their desired outcome.



In the case of John Beaton and those of his ilk, this will be to see that their team is given the preferential treatment. For the likes of Willie Collum (who is unlikely to have a natural bias towards Rangers), it is a self-preservation action whereby achieving the desired outcome of his bosses is more likely to retain his position in the refereeing fraternity and not be sanctioned, as he was previously when Rangers complained after a match with St Mirren. He was side-tracked for future Rangers games for a period of time (as he did not deliver their desired outcome). This tactic was also used by Rangers against Kevin Clancy after a match with Aberdeen despite a number of decisions having been overlooked in Ranger favour.



Therefore, where the implicit bias of the individual does not favour Rangers, Rangers acts so as to pressurise for the desired outcome – which appears to be aligned with the implicit bias of the Head of Refereeing and therefore is easy to deliver.



This hypothesis is backed up in the paper from Thomas Johannes Dohmen and Jan Sauermann.



(2)“This paper surveys the empirical literature on referee bias in professional football and other sports. Referees are typically appointed by a principal to be impartial, especially when unbiased referee judgment is vital for the accomplishment of the principal’s objective. In these cases, subjective evaluation or interpretation of facts is often inevitable. Such situations are prevalent in virtually all domains of life, be it in jurisdiction, where unbiased judgment is crucial to ensure the state’s objective of just law enforcement, in labor relations, where non-discriminatory performance evaluations are essential for a fair treatment of workers and to guarantee optimal assignment and promotion decisions, in the scientific production process, where an efficient allocation of research funds depends
on impartial referee decisions, and, of course in sports, where favoritism of referees can be detrimental. In order to ensure that referees act in the interest of the principal who appoints them, agency theory offers as simple recipe, namely to align the incentives of the agent and the principal (Baker, 1992).”  




In the above paragraph, the $64,000 question is “who is the principal and what is their inherent bias, desired outcomes and objective”.





Simplistically, the answer is the SFA is the principal (if you read this aloud, probably the only time SFA and principle will be in the same sentence unless preceded by “lack of…”) and the objective should be to ensure fairness and may the best team win.
However, in Scottish Football, it would appear the objective is to ensure that Rangers prosper and survive despite extensive rule breaking and strong-arm tactics to force their own desired outcome.


I have my bias, and I know it.



In this case, I believe that Scottish Football is rotten to the core, led by generally incompetent people satisfying theirs’ and others implicit bias (agenda) via a veil of sworn secrecy to benefit the “Establishment Club”.



Many actions over my lifetime have made this belief stronger but none more so than how the introduction of VAR, which is supposed to improve the split second decision making made by a referee, has actually been used to benefit one club by giving the benefit of the doubt to that club and not giving the benefit of the doubt to the club who can most impact the desired outcomes of those who run the game in Scotland.



We hear of claims of blatant cheating. That is a debatable point. However, what is not debatable is that all of our referees have implicit bias, and they are neither trained nor encouraged to overcome this. In fact, the actions of the superiors shape the behaviours of those not with the implicit bias to behave in such a way to gain their desired outcome thereby aligning bias and manipulation to achieve the desired result.




The actions, inactions and behaviours in recent months has confirmed my unconscious bias. The feeble attempts to convince by teething problems, learning curve and IFAB statements (notably nothing from the SFA) only reinforce this confirmation




There is enough and growing evidence to show the game is rotten and it is time for Celtic to do something about it…and keeping it behind closed doors is not an option.



That’s how we got here in the first place.




Thomas Søbrik Petersen & Søren Sofus Wichmann (2020): Fairness, implicit bias testing and
sports refereeing, Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, DOI:10.1080/00948705.2020.186699


 Article in Journal of Economic Surveys · September 2016 by Thomas Johannes Dohmen
(University of Bonn) and Jan Sauermann (The Institute of Evaluation of Labour Market and
Education Policy)

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kevin mckenna
29 days ago

Ange fired his first shots today, I’d imagine he will will not be silent in the background. Watch him today on the sidelines if you think he is just getting on with it as he says in the media usually.

VAR will save everything to a server automatically we pay for it as a customer, the sfa are hanging themselves by the decision.

Great atricle by the way, but we all know.


29 days ago
Reply to  kevin mckenna

Hello, Kevin. I have thought about this too. I wanted to ask you, though, what you mean exactly when you say “the SFA are hanging themselves by the decision”?


Uibh fhaili
29 days ago

The officials wouldn’t use green towels at CELTIC park as was told by a grade one official (k o donnell I think no no no not “mr Murphy”) . Then they could make unbiased decisions during a game aye right

29 days ago

When Celtic_fc_1888 complain about a official some how that official either gets next game whether var ref or ref on pitch Willie column is to referee cup semi final at hampden with him being involved in biased or wrong decision instead of keeping him away from the team that has in most peoples eyes was wrong raised hands penalty they give a semi final against the wrong get team only sfa its based for one team me I think its hatred for Celtic_fc_1888 and the history of club and supporters Scotland shame

Schrodinger’s Cat
29 days ago

Thank Ralph for posting this.
All Celtic fans should stop talking about conspiracy theories and talk about inherent, implicit and cognitive bias. We should be asking questions of the SFA and what it is doing to ensure bias is absolutely minimised.
Raise our game to the intellectual level.
Ange has fired the first shots yesterday and said it is up to the powers in refereeing to fix this.
Sorting bias is exactly what he means.
We will get the balloons like Kris (devoid) Boyd and the pseudo intellectual Hugh (talk through your ar oops nose) Keevins continue to try to ridicule.
Raise the argument to a level where they cannot compete.
Inherent, implicit and cognitive bias. We all have it but we don’t all referee our team’s matches.

29 days ago

And ‘cultural hegemony’. Was a revelation when I learned what that was, I recommend to anyone who hasn’t read about it to do so. Antonio Gramsci being the main guy for reference but plenty others since him. Helped me realise there is no conspiracy, yet something was definitely happening!

29 days ago

A very interesting discussion today. Thank you, Ralph and thank you Schrodinger’s Cat.

Questions that spring to mind for me focus on what happens in other football associations to address the inherent, implicit and cognitive bias that their referees must also have. What form does that take? Who has addressed this successfully?

Thanks again.

I totally agree with the above, I’ve been on about unconscious bias for ages, the other thing is the cabal of referees from a small area of Scotland, easily manipulated by the principal. More referees from other cities and no refereeing the team you prefer would go a long way to changing perceptions.

John A
29 days ago

I have my bias too, I f!@#ing hate them!

28 days ago
Reply to  John A

I am not biased. I hate them all equally

The Cha
27 days ago
Reply to  John A

That’s not bias, that’s a fair, reasoned and proportionate view of the blue meanies. 😉

Neil M
29 days ago

The SFA have apparently now decided that the next Glasgow Derby will not be officiated by John Beaton or any of the other current referees from the association.
In the interests of impartiality and responding to severe criticism they are appointing a referee from down South.

Step forward B. Madden

29 days ago

I am old enough to remember the sanctions applied by the SFA to Messrs Callaghan and O’Donnell following complaints made against them by oldco and their Edinburgh cousins respectively.

29 days ago

I guarantee officials will find a way to give at least 1 decision (probably after VAR) in Celtic’s favour this w/e. However, it will only happen if/when it has zero impact on the match. Similarly, I expect a penalty will be given against the Rangers IF they’re comfortably ahead.

29 days ago

In last 5 SPL seasons, net penalties awarded figures are as follows:-

The Rangers +33
Celtic + 8

That’s fact, not (conspiracy) theory.

29 days ago

Stunning article, simply stunning, thank you. We have needed someone to articulate it in this way so the powers that be and the pathetic hacks understand, we,this is not going away. The sooner we get it to Uefa the better.

29 days ago

What a wonderful, incisive and well presented article, presented with citing both evidence, sources and controlled discussion and conclusions. As a Molecular Biologist and someone who has spent his life working at academic institutions, I really appreciate this style of argument and applaud its use in this particulate situation. This may be very useful further down the line.

The excellent comment from Schrödinger’s cat is most pertinent to this discussion. Raise the argument to a higher plane and this is obviously our responsibility as well.
Ange is obviously on this level.

29 days ago

Howling at the Moon, until there is a cultural change within Scottish society this aberration will continue. Almost sixty years ago Jock Stein made it known that Celtic played against more than eleven players, look at the big man’s background, if anyone was aware, he was. The so called Press media in Scotland are rife with bigots and hat spread negative stories about fans, but conveniently ignore the pile of excrement at another club. The singing of the ‘Famine Song’ ?
To be brutally honest in what other society do individuals March through the streets passing synagogue’s, mosques, braying hatred. The future is to look elsewhere, it is coming as joint European Leagues will arrive as big money takes over football in other leagues

29 days ago
Reply to  Cartvale88

Absolutely agree with the point about it being a societal problem. Many battles to be fought, including fitba in this case

29 days ago

Insightful analysis. And great to read a football blog by an author who knows the difference between ‘principal’ and ‘principle’.

28 days ago
Reply to  paddybhoy67

What is the difference, pacifically? 😉

An Occasional Contributor
29 days ago

Nice article.
I think it is fairly evident that the rules are being applied differently for one Club than they are the rest.
We under Ange are playing an expansive ,open and quick type of Football that most if not all of the other sides have been struggling to cope with.
Since the introduction of VAR we have seen decisions take an absolute age in our games and as such have a negative impact on our game.
Its akin to a bad injury stopping play for an extended period ,seldom do both teams restart a game with the same quality of play and it all becomes a bit disjointed and stop start for a good 10 minutes after.
This affects a team like ours more because our emphasis is on continuous pressure and quick attacks.
if you look at the bulk of the decisions Rangers seem to be getting then these decisions see, to be made in an instant with little or no time to stop ,look at it properly and of course come to the correct decision.
No the emphasis seems to be ,get it made it quick and move on to placate Rangers regardless of how that impacts the opposing side.
I think this is where the bias is affecting the decision making most.
if you look at the game v them on its own then I think the penalty was a penalty due to Starfelts decision making but the Goldson handball off Starfelts shot warranted further review.
They may well have come to the same conclusion but the fact Beaton mouthed the words “It’s not up to me” kinda makes a mockery of the whole thing.
He knew that warranted a deeper examination but chose to shift the responsibility elsewhere.
Quite incredible.
Bias does exist in us all and so long as you have officials officiating in games involving their chosen team or the sworn enemy of their team then unfortunately it will always have an impact.
The answer is fairly obvious I think.
Scottish Football should bring in competent full time refs who from outside of Scotland (even the U.K. so long as they can speak English) who have no bias towards any of our Clubs.
I’m fairly confident that there are competent refs around Europe who would fancy a new job and life in Scotland.
Last but not least…

“If you’re good enough, the referee doesn’t matter.” Jock Stein

Well Celtic are proving this to be true regardless of them and VAR.
Jock certainly proved it when he was the man.


The Cha
29 days ago

Nothing will change due to Ange’s comment and the board’s regular “bafflement” at decisions, which are never followed up when they meet the inevitable stonewall.

The latter are the only ones that can progress the issue and other than the odd letter, which are quickly rebuffed and never pursued, as they’re only raised to tamp down fans’ anger.

I hope Ange isn’t taking part in this ‘keep a lid on it’ policy of our board.

When the Huns complain about officials they are quietly side-lined, when we raise mild objections the said official are quickly promoted back to high profile games and we’re put back in our box.

On another point, when Beaton visits a Hun pub after a wretched performance this isn’t unconscious bias, yes that plays a part but its a long way from the full picture.

All academic studies, fans contacting UEFA etc are meaningless, only the Celtic board represent our interests and if they don’t then the battle is lost.

29 days ago

Bring in independent officials for the big games. Var should go independent full time. Fat Ali quoted Julian’s cup final goal as proof of decisions going our way. Difference is with var that would have been ruled out , It really is that simple.

29 days ago

Brilliant article, Ralph. In many countries, referees are corrupted by money. They make on-field decisions, based on which particular club pays the most. In Scotland however, referees favour the Huns, expecting no material reward. Their only reward, is to help the team that they support, cheat their way to the desired on-field outcome. Outrageous, I know…and yet the PLC remain-not so enigmatically-silent. They are complicit in the ongoing cheating. With that swine Lawwell back, things are not going to improve one little bit.

Hail Hail.

28 days ago

What are the sevconians afraid of?

10 clubs (Kilmarnock abstain) vote for an official outwith of Scotland to occupy the VAR prestigious chair.

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