Of robots and referees: Why won't soccer adopt instant replay? | Sports

Of robots and referees: Why won't soccer adopt instant replay?

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Frank Lampard during the infamous Germany game
  • Michael Steele
  • Frank Lampard during the infamous Germany game
In the aftermath of the FIFA World Cup, fans from across the world seemed united in their desire to see soccer’s governing body revamp its refereeing system. But, FIFA has been slow to make this happen, and this week came a discouraging story in which the former head of UEFA—soccer’s governing body in Europe—said that soccer had no use for such technologies because soccer is a game, “for humans and not for robots.” Moving beyond the comic absurdity of the statement, though, one recognizes that some version of this argument seems to pop up whenever discussions of technology-aided refereeing come up.

When Major League Baseball began initial experiments with its QuesTec system that was designed to judge the accuracy and consistency of league umpires, many of its critics lamented that the system threatened to ‘remove the human element from the game.’ As I listened to these concerns, I always felt a little confused because, in theory at least, the strike zone—like a goal in soccer—is an objectively defined entity; in other words, if there is a human judgment that deviates from what an accurate technology says, then that human judgment is wrong.

To bring the “remove the human element from the game” argument to its full conclusion, you are essentially arguing in favor of the inclusion of inaccurate calls in sports. This, of course, presupposes that the technology works, or at least works more frequently than human calls. We will return to this point.

The remove-the-human-element argument against technology-aided refereeing is, almost on its face, an obviously bad one. To be fair, though, there are other arguments against using technology to aid referees and umpires in officiating of sporting events.

1. Unfair to the referees. Whenever a sport begins toying with the idea of instant replay, there will inevitably come cries of offense from that sport’s referees who see the call for replay or other technology as an affront to their competence. Why, they will ask, do we accept that athletes will make good plays and bad plays, but then hold referees to a higher standard of perfection? The answer is that referees should never be more than incidental to the game, and that what we came to see are the triumphs and failures of the athletes, not their adjudicators. The well-worn adage that a game has been well-officiated if you never mention the referee is true. The purpose of an athletic contest is to take the measure of its participants and not to gauge the quality of the referee. The only relevant measure, in the end, is accuracy.

2. Fairness. When college football began discussions about implementing some version of instant replay, there was a concern that because not all college football games were broadcast on television, not every game would have the benefit of instant replay. This situation is analogous to what soccer faces. Not every professional match—and indeed, perhaps not every international match—will have the benefit of goal line technology. As such, with the intervention of technology, there will be fewer bad calls at an Arsenal-Barcelona or Italy-Germany match, but a match between two Czech teams or a CONCACAF qualifier between Costa Rica and Trinidad & Tobago likely will suffer because they cannot afford to install and run the necessary equipment. This argument is a perfect example of sacrificing the good for the perfect. Improving the quality of calls in only a third of matches is a good thing, a fact which college football shows clearly. Big Ten games get replay and are aided by it; the Amherst-Williams game remains unchanged, and is not hurt by it.

3. Controversy adds something to the game. A lot of sports radio talk shows make this point, which is probably evidence of why you shouldn’t listen to sports radio. Sports have to be an honest contest between two sides, and the enforcement of the rules should seek to support this basic end. If the games themselves require incompetently officiated matches to be worth discussing and loving, then we may have crossed over from honest contest to WWE. Whither Earl Hebner?

4. Delay. The old joke is that instant replay is not really instant. When the NFL first instituted instant replay in 1986, one of the reasons that it failed was that it simply took too long. Replay officials might mull over a call for 10 or 15 minutes, effectively killing the momentum of the game. Technology has more or less rendered this concern moot, as replays are now usually completed within 2-3 minutes. In a game that almost always lasts three hours, this is a minor investment in time. In capping the number of replay challenges and punishing coaches for making frivolous challenges, we are also assured that, for the most part, the challenges are reserved for only the most important calls.

In the NBA, which limits instant replay to assessing whether a shot beat the clock or a player was behind the 3-point arch, the reviews are even rarer and quicker. Baseball, with its interminable minor delays, pauses and restarts, would seem to suffer not at all to adding 3-4 minutes to a game that too often creeps towards four hours.

Soccer, with its running clock and insistence on continuous action, would seem to be the most vulnerable to concerns about delays. At present, the only thing being considered are goal-line calls, though, which could be done automatically using some combination of chip and camera technology. Moreover, can anyone who witnessed Frank Lampard’s unawarded goal in England’s quarterfinal loss to Germany and Ghana’s shameless time-wasting at the end of USA-Ghana really argue that taking 90 seconds to determine if a goal was scored is a worse use of time than watching a player use chicanery to bleed out the clock?

5. Tradition. What most of these arguments come down to is that people have certain emotional attachments to their sports, and do not like to see them changed. In the end, though, we almost always accept these changes. I don’t know anyone who wants to get rid of the 3-point line, the forward pass, interleague play or the Super Bowl, but none of these things were present in the original formulations of the rules and leagues. Like the societies in which they exist, sports change. But, when sports traditionalists argue against replay or computer chips in balls, I will always point out that cricket and tennis, two of the stodgiest sports with the longest and most storied traditions in all of athletics, have both enthusiastically embraced instant replay. Waiting for the goofy computer-generated ball to bounce and leave a mark on the playing surface has become a staple of tennis telecasts, and though I cannot for the life of me explain precisely what is being reviewed or why it matters, I have seen enough cricket to know that (apparently) crucial plays are submitted to a replay booth for review. If a game that has existed for 709 years can endure the intrusion of cameras and computers, certainly soccer can.

In the end, there is only one argument against the use of technology to assist referees and umpires, and that is a technical one. FIFA is right to express some concern over the accuracy of goal line technology, but by most accounts it does in fact work. Rarely, though, does the debate center on these technical matters. In time, as video technology becomes better and we become more adept at creating highly robust and subtle algorithms that can evaluate potential rules violations, one can imagine that most calls in sports can be automated. Within our lifetimes, we may see all out of bounds and offsides calls handled by computer, and in time even more complicated things like pass interference in football, or fouls in basketball and soccer may be judged by complex artificial intelligence programs.

Beyond having increased accuracy and consistency, more automation in refereeing would also reduce the amount of griping because, after all, if there is no referee to yell out, what can you do? (well, this, I suppose).

On the day when soccer officiating does become subject to the authority of a computer algorithm, though, I look forward with great anticipation and mischievous glee to what creative machinations Fate will work to cause England’s inevitable early flame-out from future World Cups.

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