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Headlines Published on 12 February 2010

Title Got height? Get fouled

Tall athletes better watch out. New research from the Netherlands suggests that when two competing athletes are embroiled in a real or even ambiguous foul during a football game, the referee will more than likely slap the taller athlete on the wrist. The study's findings are published in Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology.

Referee calls a foul © Shutterstock
Referee calls a foul
© Shutterstock

By studying fouls in three major football competitions over a period of seven years, the researchers at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University showed that a taller player will probably be accused more for an ambiguous foul than his shorter competitor.

Drs Niels van Quaquebeke and Steffen Giessner from the Rotterdam School of Management launched their investigation by transferring their insights from decision making in business into the sports arena. The fundamental question for them was whether people are capable of considering ambiguous foul situations in an objective and impartial way.

Evolutionary and linguistic research has shown that people tend to link the size of others with concepts like power, strength and aggression. The Dutch researchers hypothesised that the taller of the two players will be accused of the foul. Their data show that the taller players are usually targeted by referees and fans as the perpetrators of the foul, while the shorter players are commonly considered victims.

The researchers evaluated all fouls recorded by Impire AG, operator of the largest German Bundesliga (top league in German football) database, in seven seasons of the UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) Champions League, the German Bundesliga and the last three FIFA (International Federation of Association Football) World Cups. The total numbers of fouls were 32 142 (UEFA Champions League), 85 262 (German Bundesliga) and 6 440 (FIFA World Cups).

The researchers also used data from two other perceptual experiments with football fans. Based on the data collection methods, leagues and seasons, the researchers found that taller players are in fact more likely to be blamed and accused of a foul, whether or not a foul was actually committed.

'We chose football as the context of our studies because the sport often yields ambiguous foul situations in which it is difficult to determine the perpetrator,' explained Dr van Quaquebeke. 'In such situations, people must rely on their "instincts" to make a call, which should increase the use and thus the detectability of a player's height as an additional decision cue,' he added.

'Furthermore, the use of referee assistance technology and adequate referee training is frequently debated in association football. Thus, by providing scientific insights on potential biases in refereeing, our work might help officials weigh the options.'

However, the two researchers noted that it is not their call to derive conclusions for football practice.

More information:

  • Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University
  • Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology

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