Roborefs

As published in Inside Sport, December 2008

In bygone days the old chestnut ‘the man in white is always right’ could seldom be proved otherwise.  Now, modern sports coverage is hanging officials out to dry at an embarrassing rate. The time lag between technological innovations and sports’ procrastination over using them is as responsible as anything for the lack of respect and monumental difficulty in recruiting and retaining officials.

Despite their fundamental role, referees are the most vilified people in sporting circles.  Before they began resembling The Wiggles, AFL umpires copped universal derision as `white maggots’.  Annual claims umpiring is ‘worse than ever’ are largely born of greater scrutiny and advanced TV coverage than basis in fact. 

Traditionalists argue technological aids will change the whole nature of sport from a spontaneous, fallible event, to a laborious one with innumerable replays.  Sport romantics contend the human fascination with chance should not be underestimated, that sport is more than a contest of ability and skill, it is also a test of courage and character and how players react under extreme pressure to good fortune and gross injustice.

What a load of old fashioned claptrap!

There’s little doubt players generally make more mistakes than referees – and that is the challenge, spontaneity and uncertainty spectators and participants yearn for, not of officials fruitlessly attempting to exceed the realms of human sensory capability.  Enough officials are already of the misguided notion that their power extends to being the star of the show.  If the execution of skilful performance requiring a lifetime of training can be unnecessarily cruelled by dumb luck, what is the point? 

Does referee induced misfortune really even out in the end as we are habitually reassured?  Studies have shown that factors such as home crowd pressure and the ability of the player sub-consciously influence referees.  For the player or team in a vital match or final, there may be no other opportunity to experience the ultimate in their chosen sport.  Livelihoods being at stake, the growing proliferation of betting and match fixing allegations are all irrefutable reasons why if the technology is there and practical to implement, it’s a no-brainer. 

An (old) school of thought is that copping the bad with the good is part of life and teaches youngsters invaluable lessons.  It’s a non-argument really – sports will never afford the required technology at junior or local level so there will always be a role for traditional officials and traditional values. 

What constitutes sport’s moral code is debateable in any case.  When yet another Steve Bucknor howler gave Andrew Symonds a lucrative reprieve against India last summer, his integrity unfairly and unnecessarily came into focus.  In the same test match, the inability to provide clarity on other key decisions added undue pressure on the umpires amid an already explosive backdrop.  In the end, players’ deteriorating conduct and influence on decisions was a product of the diminished faith in the umpires’ capability and an inadequate support system.

South African cricket umpire Rudi Koertzen envisages a day where there is just a coat hanger up one end with all decisions referred to the third umpire.  Officials may rue the use of technology as a vote of no confidence but it’s really an acknowledgement that the human eye and brain simply cannot process some aspects of play with an acceptable level of accuracy.  Lame forecasts of robots taking umpires’ places are premature for there will always be a need for qualified human assessment of the evidence, whether primary or secondary. 

Redefining officials’ responsibilities requires a level of diplomacy but on the flipside, surely it’s a welcome relief to have the luxury of a back-stop in place?   If sports are so touchy about player dissent and the adverse affects on their reputation, significantly reducing mistakes has to be a positive answer.  

If ever a sport has the potential to be blighted by refereeing blunders, it’s one where each goal is a momentous occurrence.  Amid a groundswell of pressure to incorporate video replays in soccer, FIFA boss Sepp Blatter remains incomprehensibly in favour keeping the ‘human face’ in football as long as he’s in charge.  As Nero fiddles, on a regular basis games featuring players earning the GDP of Rome are being burned by referees’ erroneous whistles.

Cricket’s piecemeal use of a third umpire for run-outs and stumpings disregards too many blatantly wrong caught behinds and LBW’s.  In most instances Hawkeye, snickometer, super slo-mo and ‘hot spot’ technologies reveal the right decision.  Again, if the video referee still can’t decide with reasonable surety in the minority of instances where there is some uncertainty, then it’s a simple matter of benefit of the doubt to the batsman, as it has always been.  If the ICC believes Hawkeye is credible enough for evaluating their umpires, it seems a natural step to actually use it in matches.  It seems anomalous that as a progressive cricketing nationAustralia last year voted against revamping the ICC’s appeal system.

Surprisingly, current players such as Ponting, Lee and Symonds follow the same line, Ponting quoted as saying that the technology that has been used and trialled by the ICC over recent years hasn’t been accurate enough to give conclusive evidence on dismissals.  Sure, absolutely 100% conclusive evidence may sometimes prove elusive but using the technology at hand is surely about making better decisions and eliminating obvious errors that leave us scratching our heads in dismay. 

Channel Nine’s executive sport producer Steve Crawley baulks at his coverage playing a greater role in the judicial process but ignoring the technology is a bit like refusing to acknowledge the presence of life jackets on a sinking ship.  Umpiring is an unbelievably tough gig – why let the poor blighters drown!

Frustrated by the inconsistency of LBW decisions, Hawkeye was invented by Paul Hawkins, a doctorate in artificial intelligence and an expert in camera-based vision processing.   The only predictive element of the system is from the point beyond where the ball hits the pad.  With surrounding cameras, a full 3D trajectory can be accurately modelled, despite criticisms that it cannot account for unique factors such as spin, the wicket, seam and so on.

After a rigorous 12 months of testing, the system proved to be accurate, reliable and practical enough to be used successfully by professional tennis.   Such an aid has been long overdue where continual whinging and moaning over line calls is just as tedious as occasionally waiting a few moments for a second opinion. 

Of course there are limitations to utilising video modelling programs such as Hawkeye.  Not every element of sports enables a black and white decision.  AFL, with so many subjective interpretations and a multitude of decisions throughout a game, has limited applications.  What the AFL has shown is the drawbacks of more umpires as a solution; inconsistency, further confusion and a greater number of officials not at the required standard. 

In lieu of a more sensible rotation of three field referees that also act as touch judges, determining debateable tries in League has demanded the video ref.  Whilst a definitive answer may not always be forthcoming, fans welcome a more rigorous judgement than a (possibly unsighted) guesstimation.  How new technology affects the balance of a game; for the attacking or the defending side, is a philosophical question.

Undoubtedly, the challenge for sport administrators is maintaining the balance between scientific certainty and general enjoyment.  No one wants every thrilling moment to resemble waiting for an exam result.  The prospect of continual disruptions in play have often been cited as the major shortcoming but sports such as the NFL and tennis have sensibly averted tedium by capping the number of challenges in a game.  Put up or shut up!  

No matter the technology, there will always be refereeing clangers – just less frequent and severe.  After years of resistance, sports are slowly bowing to pressure to get it right but as a professional entertainment, reward for effort continues to be brought undone by outdated and overly conservative thinking.  As sport performance relentlessly strives for improvement, why should officialdom dither over lifting its quality to match? 

As long as sports implement its use intelligently by clearly defining its scope and the role of the referees, audio visual aids will avert much of the widespread angst and possibly some of the greater ills that threaten sport. 

For better or worse, amateur hour is over.

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