What College Football Can Teach Us About Crime

It’s either an exciting or depressing time of the year for football fans. The college bowl season just wrapped up and the NFL Playoffs are in full swing. Wait, this is the Wicked Problems, Wicked Solutions blog, so why am I writing about football? It turns out that academics can learn a lot about the world from high stakes competitive sports. Sporting environments offer a clear set of rules, a set of highly motivated individuals, occasional rule changes, and perhaps most importantly, a wealth of data.

In a recent paper, “Crime on the Field” my co-authors and I explore how an expansion of rule enforcers affect crime, and, more specifically, how an additional enforcer on patrol influences the probability of a crime being detected.

Understanding the impact that an increasing number of rule enforcers has on crime is difficult. For example, police chiefs allocate additional manpower to high crime areas, which could lead one to conclude that police cause crime! Potential criminals can also relocate to places where officers are less likely to patrol in order to avoid detection or may come up with ingenious ways to avoid getting caught in the act.

This is where college football comes into play. In recent years, several conferences have expanded the number of officials on the field from 7 to 8. One of the first conferences to do this was the Big XII, which added an 8th official to conference games beginning in 2013. Importantly for our purposes, the official was added to accommodate hurry up no huddle offenses. If we are willing to view officiating crews as the rule enforcers, at least on the field, then this represents a change in enforcement, which can be studied to provide insight about similar non-sports contexts such as police.

There is a wealth of data on penalties, or crime, in college football. Broadcasters such as ESPN and CBS post summaries of play-by-play data online. For instance, in the 1st drive of FSU’s game against Virginia Tech we can see that there was a penalty, a False Start.

What we do in our paper is collect all of the play-by-play descriptions over the 2012 and 2013 seasons that include at least one Big XII team. Then, for each play description, we code up whether there was a penalty. Using this data, we can then ask whether penalties are more prevalent when there are 8 officials on the field rather than the customary 7 for similar plays and team matchups.

We find that over the entire 2013 season, penalties were about 3 percentage points more likely to occur on a given play with the 8th official present. Now this might not sound like much, but for a game with 150 plays this suggests an additional 4-5 penalties per game.

Intuition might suggest that as enforcement manpower increases people would behave better, and your intuition would be generally correct. But what drives the better behavior is that the underlying probability of getting caught goes up. Our study makes it possible to document and quantify the underlying detection effect, or as I call it, the extra eyes and ears effect.

The data also allow us to understand how players respond throughout the season. Because the players are repeatedly exposed to the 8 person referee crews, we can estimate how the probability of a penalty varies throughout the season. We find that by the end of the season, as shown in the figure below, the 8th official has almost no impact on the number of penalties called.  

The Increase in Penalties Falls the Longer Players are Exposed to Additional Referee

This finding has important implications for the real world, because it suggests some learning or behavioral adjustments on the behalf of potential criminals (the players in this case). Think about it; if a cop was stationed at the same street corner every day, it would likely change how you drive through that intersection. College football players behave similarly.

This year, as you watch the Super bowl, you may want to think about all the interesting insights that football and other sports can provide if we ask the right questions. I know that’s what I’ll be doing.

Dr. Carl Kitchens is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics.

The feature image is from Wikipedia.

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