Todd Walker

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What If We Had Robot Refs?


By Hua Hsu   March 30, 2017


Technological innovations have become part of how we experience sports. The problem is that most viewers at home don’t realize the imprecision of the machines.

Technological innovations have become part of how we experience sports. The problem is that most viewers at home don’t realize the imprecision of the machines.

Last month, Mark Clattenburg, who is generally regarded as one of the finest referees in professional soccer, left England’s Premier League for a better-paying position in Saudi Arabia. Plenty of famous players have chosen riches over prestige and joined less established leagues in Asia and the Middle East. But this was one of the first times that a referee of Clattenburg’s stature and prominence had left in his prime. Just last year, he was selected to referee two of the most important matches on Earth: the finals of the Champions League, in May, and then the European Championship, two months later—plum gigs that testified to his skill. To commemorate the occasion, he had the feat tattooed on his arm—a testament to his knack for preening.

Some fans lamented Clattenburg’s departure; it was, above all, thrillingly modern to watch a referee who carefully styled his hair and adjudicated with a sense of bravado, eager to be part of the spectacle. But the way Clattenburg was hailed as someone at the apex of the profession was a reminder of how primitive on-field officials can seem, huffing to and fro, eyeballing things in real time. The average fan watching television is often better equipped to see what is happening on the field of play. Technological innovations have become part of how we experience sports: the strike-zone grid projected onto the catcher’s body, thermal sensors tracking the flight of a ball, a feast of different camera angles and playback speeds.

As a result, it’s easier than ever to second-guess the authority of a referee or an umpire. After all, they are only human. But what if we didn’t have to rely on them? Would it change our experience if competitions were overseen by robots and machines rather than fallible and distractible people? In an age of wearable technology, is there a compelling reason not to weave sensors and trackers into uniforms or cleats? This is the subject of “Bad Call: Technology’s Attack on Referees and Umpires and How to Fix It,” a recent book by Harry Collins, Robert Evans, and Christopher Higgins, three U.K. social scientists (and fans of Liverpool Football Club) with an interest in how technology has changed the typical fan’s understanding of sports. “Ten million hearts are broken every week,” they write, “and they do not need to be.”

I’ve often wondered if I’d prefer games to be perfectly overseen. The N.B.A. might be among the most progressive leagues in the world, yet its officiating crews aren’t immune to implicit bias. In the world of soccer, tensions between referees, players, and fans have resulted in the occasional work stoppage, and even in incidents of violence. Why not institute goal-line technology and implant balls with G.P.S. trackers? Why not get a machine, rather than someone hunched over the catcher, to call balls and strikes? If it were possible to tell whether someone reached a first-down marker without the assistance of two people holding opposite ends of a chain, why not allow it? But, I think, it’s the capacity for human error, for accident or misjudgment, that deepens our sense of fatalism or tragedy in sports. At the level of narrative, it’s more fun to have a villain, especially one whose unveiling is unexpected, whose name you might not have known when the evening began. I’d rather have someone to (harmlessly) blame—opening up space for speculation, chaos, and human messiness.

Collins, Evans, and Higgins write about how decisions made by referees and officials inflect our feelings of justice, merit, and outrage. In their view, the average fan has put too much faith in “intermediation,” or technological assistance to on-field calls. The air of machine precision casts doubt on what our eyes—or the eyes of referees—can process. As viewers, they argue, our instinct is to assume that all forms of assistance are equally effective, or that they do what they claim in the first place. But what we see on television is usually just a representation, or a calculated guess, based on thermal imaging, sound, or the work of cameras tracking an object’s velocity through air. There’s a difference between implanting a ball with a chip—which, it turns out, can be very expensive—and using “track estimators” to guess their path, and neither solution is a hundred per cent effective.

The problem is that most viewers at home don’t realize the imprecision of the machines. In Collins, Evans, and Higgins’s view, fans end up watching “a video game while believing they are seeing what really happened.” During the 2007 Wimbledon final, Roger Federer grew so incensed by the authority of a computer system called Hawk-Eye, which was new at the time, that he famously griped, “It’s killing me.” Watching at home, the Hawk-Eye appears to be a precise, schematic account of what just happened in a tennis match, tracking the ball in flight and then zooming down to the service line or the base line to show whether the shot has landed in or out. But what Hawk-Eye actually does is anticipate where a ball should land, triangulating the most likely outcome based on visual tracking of its trajectory. Despite the appearance of microscopic accuracy, the system at the time still assumed a margin of error of about 3.6 millimetres.

These moments, when highly trained athletes quibble with the all-knowing judgment of a machine, make for weirdly thrilling television. It feels as if the athletes are standing in for the rest of us, as though we forfeit a bit of what makes us human when we let a computer make the call. As for “Bad Call,” it never ends up succeeding as a polemic. The authors propose some modest solutions, all of which boil down to less reliance on technological intermediation and better television analysis of what fans at home are actually seeing. Perhaps there might be ways for games to flow naturally, with off-site officiating decisions interrupting only when absolutely necessary. A lot of the technology the authors discuss is still proprietary, so their arguments about technical limitations remain speculative at best.

But the book does raise fascinating questions about our desire to see the world as something where everything can be measured, calibrated, and fine-tuned. Why not just let things continue as they always have, with human error baked into the game or the match, rather than allowing ourselves to be “enthralled by technology and a fetish for a mythical account of accuracy,” which the authors believe can only lead to “madness”? Given that more people watch sports on television than in person, it’s unlikely that this appetite for technological assistance will diminish anytime soon. For professional leagues and broadcasters, offering viewers the best product available means new, customizable camera angles, higher definition, and greater expectations of clarity, certitude, and precision.

The most provocative moment of “Bad Call” comes at the end, when the authors suggest that the stakes for all this are much greater than just a few more titles for Liverpool. What if technology’s presumed authority in helping us to decide who wins and who loses contains darker possibilities? “Once upon a time dictatorial regimes doctored photographs in the darkroom, removing a figure here, adding one there, so as to produce what looked like realistic evidence to back up their reconstructions of history; nowadays it can happen, or it soon will be able to happen, with video running at full speed in real time. No one can want track estimators to be the thin end of the wedge for the creation of a new kind of gullible public.” Quite the slippery slope. It reminded me of how frequently the language of sports, from “inside baseball” Beltway minutiae to a candidate’s “ground game,” infects the world of politics. Maybe it’s a kind of wish fulfillment, since sports provide one of the last institutions where we can take seriously the story of meritocracy, the possibility of just desserts, the language of life as an “even playing field”—or not. The men and women wearing a different uniform, whistles at the ready, themselves flawed, running alongside the action, are there to remind us that there are still rules.

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