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Michael Bradley and biased refs. He's got a point.

Bradley says Canadian refs make conscious efforts to not show they're not being biased to Canadian teams. Everyone laughs at him. But you know what, he's right. Though opening the Pandora's box by saying it out loud really doesn't help.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

So, Michael Bradley was upset at the end of the game, going off on a long tirade against the referee Dave Gantar and having to be dragged off the pitch, then giving a still angry post game interview where he continued to rail against Gantar and then seriously looked like he wanted to fight Lee Godfrey (watch the whole interview here). All sorts of fun and he should probably expect a fine from the league any time now.  But all totally understandable though, and not really all that unusual, pretty much everyone agrees TFC DID get shafted, and in the heat of the moment, things get said, at the very least it's good to see the passion etc etc.

Except he went a little further than just saying Gantar's a bad ref who had a bad game, his thoughts (again to be fair, angry, in the moment thoughts) on it all included this complaint.

They continue to assign Canadian referees when an American team is playing a Canadian team. Because it's obvious that now these guys are going to make a conscious effort to show they're not being biased one way or another..... I can't understand why you'd continue to do that.

Accusations of conscious bias is a step up from merely saying the ref sucked and is what will probably get him into a bit of trouble, but dragging Gantar's nationality into it was a step too far for most people. Most just dismissed it as ridiculous, as an absurd theory, something to roll your eyes at, make fun of and move on. That was my initial reaction, but the more I think about it, the more I think he's got a point.

I don't necessarily agree with that as the theory as to why Gantar blew that particular call, but it does bring up an interesting problem and to pretend otherwise or outright dismiss it as absurd is very naive.

Neutral referees exist. They're a thing. In international games, or Champions League games between teams from different countries, the ref will be from a neutral country. I have no idea how far that goes back, but it's a long established and thoroughly unquestioned standard in many different sports. I don't know how all leagues operate, but from growing up in England I know that there, the refs will all be from a neutral town.


To avoid bias is an obvious answer. To avoid refs being able to swing games in the favour of their home country/town/team. Presumably at some point that happened, forcing the neutral ref idea to come into existence.

Go a bit further and you get the main reason it's still used. It's about optics, to avoid the perception of bias, to deny fans or media or whoever the chance to point to contentious decisions and say that the ref did that because it favoured his or her home country/city/team.  That accusation can of course still come up, we all remember Martin Rennie's conspiracy theories about the 'Toronto' ref Sylviu Petrescu screwing Vancouver in the Voyageurs Cup.  People laughed at that argument for that particular game, but no-one was dismissing the concept of hometown refs, and the need for neutral refs (the refs when TFC and Vancouver met again this year? Mathieu Bourdeau from Quebec and (chuckle) Dave Gantar from Edmonton). The theory that refs can be biased and neutral refs are needed, or at least that we need the optics of that, is still very much unquestioned.

The angle Bradley brings up is merely the other side of the coin.

Go a bit further again into why neutral refs exist, and it's about making the refs' jobs easier, enabling them to avoid having those issues being brought up, avoid having their credibility questioned. To avoid them having to think about how a decision might look if it favours their home country/town/team. There are many different things refs have to take into account (all in a split second) for every decision, multiple times in every game. If that one extra pressure (hmm, how's this going to look if I call this penalty/red card/no goal/whatever) whether it's conscious or sub conscious can be removed, that can only be a good thing.

The mere existence of neutral refs acknowledges this problem, that though they are professionals, referees are also humans who may be influenced one way or another, or at least that everyone else, players, media, fans may think that they can be influenced and it's easiest to avoid that all together.

Is it that outlandish to think that when you can't get a neutral referee, and so the ref is put into that position, where there could potentially be accusations of bias, he will, consciously or subconsciously, want to avoid that? That he will now have that one extra thought affecting his decisions? That he'll want to make sure that his decisions are as fair and uncontestable as possible? That he'll give extra thought to making sure that he's nothing but scrupulously fair where this particular team is concerned? Given that refs are human I think it's a perfectly natural reaction to have.

I wouldn't go as far as to say that that's what happened in this case. Who knows what Gantar saw from his viewpoint and why he decided it was a foul, or that the penalty was a penalty or why he made all the other decisions that night, so to accuse this particular referee in this particular game of bias against the Canadian team without a shred of evidence is out of line. But I think generally speaking, it is a problem, a potential issue. If you think there's a need for neutral refs to avoid bias for a home team, you have to acknowledge the possibility of bias against a home team, or that the refs will be thinking about trying to avoid showing a bias.

The real problem though is when you try to think of the solution.  The obvious one would be to ban Canadian refs from games featuring a Canadian and American team, but to be replaced by who? American refs? Then you've got the exact same issue so that wouldn't help.  The next solution would be to have neutral refs, bring in refs from Mexico or wherever to ref these games, and that's an idea that would never happen. Developing US and Canadian refs is as much part of MLS' mandate as is developing players or coaches, so to hand a good chunk of the games over to foreign refs would be very counter productive to that goal, as well as bringing up other potential accusations, ie why do we have to make do with the shitty MLS refs when the Canadians get the foreign ones who are better, (or vice versa).

Basically it's a problem without a solution, just one more little MLS idiosyncrasy that we'll have to put up with, roll our eyes at and just learn to put up with. Frankly I'm a little surprised that this hasn't come up before to be honest, but it's out there now, one more possible conspiracy theory to think about if for whatever reason  the calls don't go your way(pretty much guaranteed it's nothing more complicated than 'the ref sucks'). And now the refs will have to think about that as well. On top of everything that goes into a regular decision, on top of the possible 'are people going to think I'm biased' thought, there's now also, 'am I thinking too much about whether people are going to think I'm biased, am i overcompensating?'

By opening this Pandora's box, Michael Bradley just made every referee's job just that little bit harder.