“That ball was on the line!”… Or was it?

From http://spectrum.ieee.org/computing/software/hawkeye-in-the-crosshairs-at-wimbledon-again

Good old football has, once again, been in the news this week. Arsene Wenger’s amazing one thousand games in charge of Arsenal and the club’s 6-0 drubbing by Chelsea were overshadowed by a huge mistake by the referee. Not only did he make an arguably incorrect decision to brandish a red card for a handball by Arsenal, he also managed to show it to the wrong player… Big oops. This has of course raised the usual questions about the use of technology in football: would having the option of a video review have prevented this from happening? Do referees need more help to ensure the decisions they make are correct in real time?

Many sports have embraced technology to help officials make decisions, review the decisions that have been made, and even to take decision-making out of a referee’s hands. This can improve consistency and fairness, add entertainment, and even become a tactical consideration for sportspeople. But is it always a good thing?

Cricket and tennis are two high profile examples of sports that have fully integrated and accepted video technology as part of officiating. When objects are flying around at well over 100mph, you can see why the human eye isn’t always able to correctly assess the position a tennis ball has landed in, or the line or predicted trajectory of a cricket ball. Both sports use video review systems (based on ‘Hawkeye’ technology) to enable players to challenge the calls that human officials have made during the game. Meanwhile, umpires are also able to call upon the technology to confirm or question their own decisions. The human element hasn’t been entirely removed though. For example, in cricket, inconclusive decisions defer back to the umpire’s original call. In theory, top level tennis events could probably function without line judges and rely solely on Hawkeye to determine whether the ball has fallen in or out on each point. However, this isn’t what the use of technology has been brought in to do. It is an aid to the human officials, not a replacement of them. Interestingly, according to one study, tennis line judges display remarkable perceptual proficiency in calling correctly, with a success rate of over 90% when the ball is within 100mm of the baseline. Trained humans have an amazing capacity for visually accuracy (and in general, the line judges are more accurate than the players!). Chair umpires also retain the power to overturn the decisions of line judges and advise players as to whether a challenge is worthwhile. To this end, the human element of officiating has certainly not been lost in tennis now that technology has been integrated.

Hockey also bases its use of video review on a challenge system. Players (and umpires) are able to request a video referral in relation to goals and infringements within the attacking and defending 23m areas. With the game now played at incredible speed and given the frequent significance of penalty corners, use of referrals can now be a crucial part of the game. As with tennis and cricket, players have a limited number of challenges available to them, so tactical considerations can be quite significant. For example, possible referral opportunities are not always used by a team early on, in case they are incorrect and therefore do not have the chance to refer a decision at a later point. The Australian cricket team made some notoriously bad decisions to review during the Ashes in the summer of 2013, leaving them unable to challenge calls at crucial times, whereas the England team had a clear strategy for deciding whether it would be worthwhile using the DRS (Decision Review System). In hockey, it is also important to consider the type of decisions being referred. Whereas in tennis, where it is a reasonably ‘black and white’ decision – the ball is either in or it is out – many decisions in hockey are related to the umpire’s interpretation of the rules in the context of a given situation. It is therefore important that players consider the nature of the decision they are questioning: is it a clear infringement or is a third umpire going to find it difficult to overturn the original interpretation of events made by an umpire on the field?

Emotions, fatigue and simply executing physical skills can influence a player’s ability to make the right decision about when to use a video referral. When competing in a high pressure environment, and potentially huge rewards are added into the equation, it is unsurprising that sports performers sometimes make the wrong call. You may recall a situation in the Beijing Olympics in 2008 where a taekwondo player was disqualified for a rule infringement during the bronze final. His response? He kicked the referee in the head:

Since 2008, Taekwondo has made some big decisions about technology. The use of a PSS (Protector and Scoring System) enables hits to be automatically scored based on their strength. This is believed to reduce human error and encourage consistent and fair decisions on points. As judges still award technical points, the sport has also introduced Instant Video Replay. Referrals are made by a coach. This is a significant difference to sports such as hockey, tennis and cricket, where (regardless of any guidance from a coach on the sidelines) the ultimate responsibility for asking for a review falls to the players. American Football also has a Coach Challenge system, where coaches are able to signal a challenge within certain time parameters by throwing a red flag onto the field of play. The relative success of this system in North America has led to calls for similar protocols being introduced in ice hockey and basketball.

As mentioned, most sports that have video reviews available to players or coaches also give this option to officials if required. Both rugby codes have for some time successfully implemented video technology to help officials determine whether a try has been scored without any infringement. In some sports where performance is judged largely on aesthetic elements, there is varying use of the technology as an aid to scoring. For example, in figure skating, a technical specialist uses video replay to verify the elements being judged; this information is then used by the judging panel to ensure a double axel isn’t mistakenly seen as a triple axel and so on. When competitors may be spinning or jumping at great speed, you can see how this may encourage consistent scoring. In contrast, diving is judged entirely in real time, with the judges scoring a dive based entirely on their first impression of its execution. Perhaps there are arguments both ways here: in aesthetic sports, often a judge’s immediate intuitive visual perceptions may be extremely accurate. But what if a judge holds preconceptions or misjudges an element? To some extent, the question of video technology in these sports begins to challenge the essence of our responses to the sport itself.

The use and degree of acceptance of video reviews raises lots of questions for players and spectators alike. One of the key issues is the motivation behind using it. Is it there to avoid ‘howlers’ by officials? Is it for safety? Is it just to make things fairer and more consistent? This may vary across different sports and is certainly a contentious issue. Taking the example of tennis, I think it is fair to say that overall, Hawkeye technology has been a welcome introduction. The tension and drama is clear if you watch and listen to the crowd awaiting a Hawkeye decision for a crucial point. I also love seeing the line judge’s reaction. These officials get the vast majority of decisions correct and I know if my judgments were challenged and I had made the right call that I would really struggle to contain a look of immense smugness! The reaction of players is also interesting. Roger Federer is accepting of the technology’s accuracy, but believes it has taken something away from the human interaction and mental side of tennis. Meanwhile John McEnroe has said he thinks it makes tennis “more interesting”. I think this is interesting in itself: would Johnny Mac have achieved the same infamy for his on-court rants and personality if Hawkeye had been available during his playing career? He might have stopped yelling, “It was on the line!” quite so often if technology had overruled him regularly.

What about the consistency of the use of video reviews? The powers that be in football commonly argue against implementing technology on the grounds that it won’t be possible to use it at all levels of the game. For me, this argument falls down because there are already so many differences between elite and participation-level sport. The technology, finance, pressure, drama and interest at the top level of any global sport like football is a world away from a Sunday morning kickabout. I think your average five-a-side footballer accepts that goal line technology isn’t available to him/her and that the best goal he or she scores that weekend won’t be captured from ten different camera angles to see again later. I’m sure the naysayers who sit in the pub and discuss the ins and outs of football would have been all for video technology if Frank Lampard’s goal against Germany in the 2010 World Cup had been counted after a review. We could have won the World Cup! On the other hand, Elise Christie, a GB short track speed skater, experienced the crueller side to video technology during the Sochi Winter Olympics. Replays are used to retrospectively review speed skating races to check for any infringements by competitors. By the letter of the law, Christie had broken the rules, but the patriotic British reaction was strongly on her side. We want things to be fair, but if it means ‘our girl’ loses, we don’t seem quite so keen.

Overall, I think that video reviews, challenges and referrals make sport more interesting, exciting and fair. There is no doubt that technology is changing the face of modern sport in many ways and the new opportunities available will raise further questions about the nature of what we are watching and how we play. I like the human element to sport. I am mindful that players can make mistakes or judgments that affect the outcomes of a game, and to some degree I’m not completely averse to a human influence being retained in the way sports are officiated. I want to see technology used as an aid to human officials, not as a replacement for them. I believe in fairness and consistency, but I don’t think feats of performance directed at pushing our physical and mental limits should be judged purely by robots and machines. In this day and age though, I think it’s crazy that a referee can send off the wrong player when millions of people watching on TV can see that he is making a huge mistake.


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