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Foul! Basketball referees try to even score, study says

UNLV plays Holy Cross in men’s basketball tonight at the Thomas & Mack Center, where three officials will run up and down the court, look for infractions, blow their whistles and, if you believe two college professors who studied 365 games during the 2004-05 season, do their collective darndest to even out fouls between the teams.

It isn’t some incredible discovery that the study also suggests most officials are directly affected by the reaction of a home team’s fans, which would be like suggesting UNLV’s football team has struggled defending of late.

Why do you think oddsmakers set lines as they do?

But there are specific reasons why referees tend to even out fouls more often than not and why the probability of one being called on a visiting team is 7 percent higher than the home folks.

1. It’s human nature.

2. These guys work far too much.

I couldn’t guess how many college games I have covered the past 25 years, but I wouldn’t need both hands to count the number of times I haven’t heard at least one coach remind an official about the foul count during play.

If I had a dollar for every, “Hey, it’s 6-1 in fouls!” … well, let’s just say making deadline wouldn’t be one of life’s priorities, unless it had to do with reserving a beachfront vacation property.

“I don’t think there is any question the (home team) might benefit some by the crowd reaction,” UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. “It’s more the fringe stuff — what might be called a travel on the road won’t be at home. It’s human nature (for officials). It’s not intentional. I’ve never thought that about officials, but they’re human beings and the home-court advantage in college basketball is probably more than in any other sport.”

Officials aren’t blind (insert favorite joke here) or deaf (ditto). They glance at scoreboards and know foul counts. They hear the insulting chants. It is also why the study concluded more calls are made on the team leading, and those numbers increase if the game is being shown on national as opposed to regional television.

The bigger the stage, the more eyes watching, the more apt officials are to even things out.

But a tired psyche can also translate into weaker resolve when it comes to standing one’s ground against those deafening chants and boos. Overworked officials have been a problem in college basketball for years, but nobody seems to have an answer for solving it.

You can’t blame referees, especially the better ones, who can receive five or six assignments a week. Money talks here, too. An official not only can make between $800 and $1,000 a game, but is also paid travel expenses from his home base.

Meaning, a referee who flies from Des Moines, Iowa, to Las Vegas one night and from Las Vegas to San Jose, Calif., the next is paid for travel as if both flights originated in Iowa. Now consider the official who boards several flights a week to work games in different conferences.

It’s about the cash. A top official can make $60,000 for four or five months of work. It’s hardly spare change.

David Pierce of Ball State and Kyle Anderson of Indiana University co-authored the report, which among those 365 games were 93 played on neutral courts. Foul numbers remained mostly the same in terms of evening things out. The professors also studied only first halves, given how many times a trailing team will foul late in hopes of rallying.

While it didn’t uncover any startling revelations, it did reaffirm what most media and fans and likely coaches and players have long held as true: Officials are like the rest of us, cognizant of how their work is being evaluated.

Everyone wants to be liked at some level, and it’s impossible to believe most officials don’t at least own a subconscious need to be viewed fair by the majority.

“It doesn’t take many plays during the course of a game to make a big difference — just a couple plays a half where the crowd reaction could (affect) a call,” Kruger said. “I’m not bashing officials. Again, it’s human nature. Basketball has so many spontaneous reactions on a continual basis. It’s different than football in terms of the type of contact.

“More than anything, we never talk about officials with our players in terms of we can play one way with certain officials and not with others. Players have enough to worry about. We just tell them to play the next play and don’t react.”

If you believe two college professors who studied 365 games during the 2004-05 season, that’s an easier task at home.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He also can be heard weeknights from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. on “The Sports Scribes” on KDWN-AM (720) and www.kdwn.com.

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