Notes from football’s underbelly – non-steroids, non dog fighting edition

A couple of items of interest:
The NFL has a new concussion policy – the league no longer thinks it’s a good idea for players who’ve been knocked unconscious to go back into the same game;

and, NFL officiating crews see things very differently from one another. Think gamblers know this?

More after the fold:

1) Alan Schwarz, reporting in today’s New York Times, writes that the NFL has adopted new guidelines for dealing with concussions:

Several N.F.L. players in recent years have been knocked unconscious during games and returned to play the same day, a practice that was deemed medically sound by the league’s committee on brain injuries.

But in a move that runs counter to the league’s medical study findings, the N.F.L. announced last week, in a news release highlighting safety procedures toward player concussions, that teams should not return formerly unconscious players to the game or practice in which they were injured. The release reaffirmed that this guideline and others “have been identified in medical studies and are used by N.F.L. team medical staffs.”

The change — which an N.F.L. spokesman said was a strong recommendation by the league office but not an absolute rule — goes against statements made in studies published by the N.F.L.’s committee on brain injuries as well as by individual committee members.(my emphasis).

As I’ve mentioned before, Commissioner Goodell seems to be taking this issue seriously, especially by comparison with his predecessor. If it’s true that he’s doing so because the issue has really started to give the league a PR black eye, then so be it. Returning players to games or practices in which they’ve been unconscious (this is what Ted Johnson, now afflicted with a variety of neurological problems, says happened to him in a 2002 preseason game when he was with the Patriots), is a separate issue from the long term health effects of repeat concussions. And, to a degree that would make the so-called Teflon President, Ronald Reagan, jealous, the NFL never seems to pay when its dirty laundry is aired. Whether it’s a recent Super Bowl entrant being implicated in a far-reaching steroids scandal (the 2004 Carolina Panthers), or perhaps its highest profile defensive player Shawne Merriman, being suspended for failing a PED test, or the disgraceful way in which its battered ex-players are treated, or the growing concussion scandal, nothing seems to deter the runaway train that is NFL revenue generation.
But, the new policy is step in the right direction.

2)  Cold Hard Football Facts has an interesting analysis of the difference in NFL officiating crews, in terms of how likely they are to call penalties, and further breaking down what kinds of penalties crews are likely to whistle. CHFF notes that the crew that called the most penalties, for the most yards, on average, was Ron Winter’s gang. They assessed an average of 111 yards worth of penalties per game. Peter Morelli’s crew, by contrast, walked off just under 70 yards per game. That’s a very large difference and, given the random nature of assignments, not easily explained by clear differences in the kinds of teams the two crews officiated. Many crews clustered around the league averages but, as CHFF points out, it’s hard to explain how some crews could see the games so differently.

How this might affect betting is not, in itself obvious. But, CHFF also broke down which crews were more likely to call different kinds of penalties. One that stands out to me is pass interference, since that call can result in by far the largest yardage assessment of any penalty, and could have a significant impact on overall scoring in a game. That, in turn, would, of course, influence over-under betting. The crew most likely to call pass interference (offense and defense), Gerry Austin’s team, assessed four times as many yards per game as Bill Carollo’s group.

One of the issues to come out of the Tim Donaghy investigation is that merely knowing who is refereeing a game appears to have been very valuable information to gamblers. To some degree this is because humans are not machines, and will not always see the same circumstances in identical ways. But, to the extent that there are systematic differences in how officials call games (long an accusation levelled against NBA officials), this has disturbing implications for both the quality and consistency of officiating, as well as for contemplating openings for organized gambling interests to take advantage of, if not influence, the way games are officiated. As in many other matters, the NFL’s getting a pass here, because no one talks about officiating disparities in that league compared to the NBA.

But, CHFF’s legwork suggests that should change.

And, speaking of gambling and the NFL, Dwil pointed in a recent comment to a book by a controversial investigative journalist, Dan Moldea, titled: Interference: How Organized Crime Influences Professional Football. Moldea’s book detailed the historic connections between gambling interests and the NFL, including the significant number of founding NFL owners (like the Giants’ original owner, Tim Mara) who made fortunes betting horses and engaging in other forms of bookmaking. Moldea’s book was panned by the New York Times in a book review by Gerald Eshkenazi, a long-time football writer for the paper, which prompted Moldea to pursue a controversial lawsuit against the Times, eventually dismissed. (for a succinct, and interesting, history of the NFL and gaming interests, including the claim that games were originally played on Sundays specifically in order to accommodate gamblers, see this article from a Vegas handicapping website).

Given the explosion in fantasy football (Eric Kaselius, on ESPN radio today, said that forty million people participate every year), I wonder how much of that interest, and its promotion by the likes of ESPN, is a way to legitimize gambling-driven interest in the NFL, since Fantasy is, after all, a form of gambling. I don’t mean to suggest that, because of Fantasy, people aren’t wagering against spreads any longer. Far from it. But, Fantasy is a way to ensure that vast numbers of fans give a shit about every game, and every play, no matter whether their own team is playing, or whether the game’s outcome isn’t already decided. That used to be the sole preserve of gambling.

In any event, given referees’ part time status, and given how much is at stake in how they call games, I’m surprised there isn’t more attention being paid to the potential vulnerabilities in NFL officiating.

But, then again, nothing about what the NFL gets a pass on should be surprising.

5 Responses to “Notes from football’s underbelly – non-steroids, non dog fighting edition”

  1. kulturejam Says:

    A quick note: the match-fixing scandal which rocked Serie A in Italian football in 2006 was driven by collusion between team managers and the referees’ association to get the “right” officials assigned to certain games. As I understand it, no one was accused of doing anything on the pitch to influence the outcome of matches. Just by knowing the tendencies of different officiating crews, champion Juventus and three other clubs knew which crews they wanted for important matches, and arranged these assignments with the referees’ association. I am sure that Chris Mortensen and Peter King will assure us that nothing like that could ever happen in the NFL. Only players or officials could be corrupted. Management? Blasphemy!

  2. Another great one. I don’t know how the NFL did it, but they have tailored themselves as so popular they are able to get a pass on pretty much anything. Any criticism of the league itself and its policies always focus on the player….its a fascinating example of perhaps a general American shift towards support of corporations over labor, and also towards the notion of a “fanatic” in my eyes. It seems like only football has fully captured both these dynamics, and are exploiting it to their continued profit.

  3. The question of knowing referees has always been a part of every game. Coaches have always placed a premium on knowing the character and perspectives of referees and umpires. It’s nice to see some empirical support for what seems to be a fairly reasonable and intuitive phenomenon.

  4. Great points J. These leagues may be pulling the wool over all of our eyes.

  5. I knew my innate dislike for fantasy football wasn’t irrational.

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