One of my friends who reads the New York Times turned me on to an article called “Study Detects Height Bias in Foul Calls” written about some original research done by two Erasmus University Rotterdam professors. The article describes how these scientists found that in their own lives, say playing basketball, they often got away with fouls because they were smaller. Phillipp Lahm (defender for Bayern), they noticed, at a mere 5’7″ seemed to constantly get away with fouls as well and it got them wondering: given the fact that football has some of the most ambiguous foul calls in professional sports, and since FIFA bans video technology from assisting the referee, thus leaving the referees to “instinct” to make the call, what if they could find a correlation between height and fouls called?
They ran with the idea, did some research and published their findings in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology (2010, 32, 3-22) under the title “How Embodied Cognitions Affect Judgments: Height-Related Attribution Bias in Football Foul Calls.”
First, they argue, using research that went before them, that “people’s mental representations of abstract concepts (such as dominance and power) are embodied in modal information about space and the body (such as height).” This is easy to see among Arsenal supporters who read this blog. Many of you have demanded time and again that Arsenal purchase “big, powerful” midfielders and defenders in order to compete with the rest of the “big, powerful” players in the English Premier League (EPL).
Often overlooked in this is how Arsenal’s smallest player (Andrei Arshavin at 5’6″) is also one of our most powerful players. His goal against Stoke where Andy Wilkinson (5’11″) tried to clatter him in the box is a perfect example of that; the little Russian just shrugged the bigger player off and coolly scored the goal. So, you can see that the perception is strong that little players aren’t powerful and that perception is usually emphatically followed with the statement “ESPECIALLY in the EPL.” After all, the English game prides itself on power, pace, strength, and size.
I won’t rehash the research that the professors did, except to say that basically they did three studies with pretty decent sized populations from Germany and they found that in ambiguous foul situations the smaller player, because of the perceptions noted earlier, got the benefit of the doubt in the call. Furthermore, and this is crucial, they also surmised that,
Since ambiguous fouls only represent a fraction of actual fouls in football, the present results thus imply that the effect size would be much higher when clear fouls, such as hitting, spitting, holding, or dangerous play, could be partialled out.
According to van Quaquebeke and Geissner, then, Smaller players get away with more dirty play. I remember that Shaquille O’Neal in his heyday used to get called for fouls just by turning to face the basket. He was so big that the act of simply turning around would inevitably create space for himself and yet the referees in the NBA saw it as a foul, time and again. So, in my experience I found that the findings of this research rang true.
And this sort of bears out for Arsenal: currently the smallest club in the EPL and sitting at the top of the Fair Play League. Seemingly, Arsenal get away with a lot, or do they?
Now, I don’t have to tell you I’m not a scientist and hopefully I don’t have to tell you that what I’m about to say is not a scientific study. What it is, is what we might call hypothesizing. What I’m about to suggest is not fact, but rather, something that an enterprising statistician with a lot more time on their hands than I currently have might want to take a look at. With that disclaimer out of the way…
If the researcher’s findings are right, then Arsenal’s smallest players ought to be getting the benefit of the calls and because we have one of the very smallest of small players in the league we might expect that he would get a massive boost in fouls called. But when I looked at Arshavin’s profile I noticed that in just 22 games he’s been called for 33 fouls and only gotten 23 fouls called for him. So I looked at Steven Pienaar and in 17 games he’s committed 29 and received 57. That seems like a lot for those two players but I couldn’t really pin it down because they play offense and it’s really hard to compare wide offense players in the league since I don’t know that many on each team.
So, since I do know all the holding midfielders I thought I’d compare them and sure enough something turned up. Here’s the chart of players which I decided were holding midfielders for each of the teams in the EPL, some have more than one and in those cases I included both. I sorted the chart by fouls committed per game and sure enough, the tallest players (for the most part) commit more fouls per game than the smaller players.
This matches the research above, refs are more likely to see tall players as the aggressor and thus more likely to call them for a foul. It’s not surprise that Marouane Fellaini, at 6’4″ tops the list with 65 fouls in just 22 games.
That said, wouldn’t it follow that if they foul more often and are more often seen as the aggressor that they would be more likely to get red and yellow cards? No, that was actually just the opposite; smaller players were given more yellow cards and more red cards per fouls committed than their taller counterparts.
Paul Scholes tops the list there, coming in at 5’7″ and getting 6 yellow cards and 2 red cards on just 22 fouls committed. Down the list, smaller players are more likely to get yellow cards for their fouls. Scott Parker commits one foul a game and gets a card for every 4th foul. How is that possible when it takes Fellaini over 10 fouls to get the same yellow card?
Of course some of this could be down to the fact that Paul Scholes is a mentalist. Same with Mascherano, who’s up at the top of the list as well. But my question is why?
Watching the Merseyside derby today, a lot of these players were on display. Fellaini committed two fouls which should have been straight red cards: first was the kick to the head of Dirk Kuyt and the second was the two-footed stamp on Kyrgiakos. To be fair, Martin Atkinson was having an absolute nightmare and probably should have sent off Masherano and Peinaar in the first half and in the one-off of this match it certainly seems that the bigger players were punished more than the smaller players.
Part of it could be reputation: Scholes, Mash, and Parker are well known for being hard tacklers. But where did they get that reputation? If all the little guys get yellow cards quicker than the big guys wouldn’t that create a reputation for these players? Is Scott Parker really more yellow worthy than Loric Cana? Fellaini’s a thug, why does it take him 3x as many fouls to get a yellow card than it does Paul Scholes? How is he able to go into a two-footed tackle like today’s and escape without even getting a card?
Obviously, I have simply asked a bunch of unanswerable questions but it does really strike me as odd that so many tall players are allowed to foul as much as they do and the little players are the ones who are more likely to get the yellow card. Just like Shaq in my example above, except in reverse.