Tim Kane had to pick up his daughter from her part-time job during the third quarter of this year’s Fiesta Bowl between Clemson and Ohio State –– the team he’s rooted for his whole life as a Columbus native and Westland High School graduate.
The Air Force intelligence officer turned economist and researcher heard the now infamous overturned ruling of senior safety Jordan Fuller’s “scoop and score” touchdown on the radio –– a broadcast that Kane said “didn’t make it sound that bad.”
But when Kane returned to his California home, he found his son had a different reaction.
“My son was losing his mind. He’s like, ‘Dad, they just changed the game!’ Yeah, OK, this happens,” he said. “So I literally watch the entire game, and I didn’t know it was such a plain catch and fumble and touchdown until the game was over and they were reviewing it, and it kind of shook me up. I was like, ‘How can that happen?’”
It was a question that stuck with Kane, who holds a doctorate in economics as a senior researcher at the Hoover Institution, a public policy think tank at Stanford University.
It stuck so long that he decided to merge the world of sport into his research for the first time –– designing an online survey study in which participants make their own judgments on controversial refereeing decisions from this year’s college football bowl season while taking into account several factors of personal bias.
“I’ve always thought refereeing, with these reviews, is fraught with human error,” Kane said. “I was just shocked. The Ohio State game had a good half-dozen plays that were sort of shockingly, poorly called — or at least controversially called. In the back of my mind, I’ve always thought, ‘Is there a technological way to address this?’”
Despite referee Ken Williamson saying he and his crew had “a lot of good looks” at the call, Fuller’s comments after the game implied that human error was afoot once again.
“I’m not paid to be a ref, but it looked like [Clemson sophomore wide receiver Justyn Ross] caught it to me,” Fuller said.
It isn’t just plays from the Fiesta Bowl featured in Kane’s survey, though.
Participants are asked to watch video clips of nine plays and evaluate them. Plays include five from Ohio State’s meeting with Clemson, three from the National Championship between LSU and Clemson and one from the Michigan-Alabama matchup in the Citrus Bowl.
The purpose of the study isn’t only to come to a public consensus on the quality of certain officiating decisions, but to test for the potential bias of respondents based on a number of self-reported categories –– including team affiliation, age, gender and political preference.
“We’ll find out if Buckeye fans are more or less biased than say Michigan fans or Alabama fans or Clemson fans,” Kane said. “We’ll find out if there’s a regional bias or an age bias or a political bias.”
A former congressional candidate in Ohio, Kane has written several books on economics, and his survey work on U.S. Military Academy graduates for his 2012 book “Bleeding Talents” led him to testify before the Senate for its findings regarding the Army’s personnel system, he said.
But for the first time in his six-and-a-half years as a senior researcher at Stanford, Kane said he found an opportunity to do something outside his normal wheelhouse.
“It just hit me that I could combine the two in this study and see if Republicans are more biased toward their home teams, or Democrats, or maybe both are, and you find independents are less biased,” Kane said.
Outside any political indications the results of the study might have, Kane said he envisions a future in which an app could allow viewers to weigh in on calls in real time –– a minute or two after a call is made on the field –– in order to crowdsource college football officiating.
“If 80 percent of Clemson fans and 90 percent of Ohio State fans think a call was bad –– and it goes against Clemson –– I mean, that’s pretty revealing,” Kane said.
The calls in the Fiesta Bowl might have been a tipping point, but Kane said he’s had the idea in his head for more than a decade.
“We’ve all seen football games and gotten frustrated, and now there may be scientific proof that some plays are literally bad, and we can measure how bad they are when we develop this methodology because we can control for team bias,” he said.
The survey is his first step, though, and Kane said he still needs a couple hundred more respondents for the analysis to gain statistical significance.
For those Buckeye fans locked in debate with those of the Wolverines, Tigers or Crimson Tide about fanbase supremacy or knowledge, they might soon have a leg to stand on.
“I just wanted to learn and see if Ohio State fans are all that bad,” Kane said. “I tend to think we’re gonna be smarter than any other fans, but science will tell.”