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Refereeing could do with the benefit of technology, as long as it doesn’t lose the human element. Nic Bothma/EPA

Drawing the line between video evidence and the ‘spirit of sport’

Sporting referees are worthy of our admiration. Every time they officiate they are required to make split second real-time decisions. Sometimes they get it right – and sometimes they don’t. They are what make games possible, and they do so in a very fallible way.

In professional sport, all referee errors have an indefinite life span due to the availability of live and recorded video records. It is a paradox that the media use to report on “howlers”. Advances in video technology are put forward as an option for narrowing the margin for referee error.

The discussion about the use of “helpful technologies” and “indisputable video evidence” raises fundamental issues about the essence of games in a digital age. Is the increased use of video to support referee decision-making better than the present status quo?

Video evidence

More and more sports are using video evidence to affirm or change officiating decisions. Increasing the use of “helpful technology” would seem to be a logical extension of the increasing number of broadcast cameras at sporting events.

Many years ago, the broadcasts of sport events used a single dominant camera position. In football, this picture came from an elevated position on the half way line.

Football matches used to be shot from the halfway mark.

Today, the availability of high speed, high definition cameras – not to mention instantaneous replay from multiple perspectives – has transformed the viewing experience of armchair spectators. The presence of large screens within stadiums has changed the relationship of the ticket-holding spectator too.

There has been a concerted effort to combine the viewing experience of both audiences so that neither is disadvantaged by their location. This has been particularly the case when technological innovation has been used to determine the accuracy of referee and umpire decisions. In the case of golf, it has led to viewers pointing out rule infractions to on-course officials.

FIFA’s commissioning of goal-line technology for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil was in part due to the decision not to award a goal in real-time to Frank Lampard in a 2010 World Cup game (below).

The goal-line technology was used to confirm a goal had been scored in the recent game between France and Honduras.

Despite the obvious benefits, there are still some issues with “helpful technology” and the claims made for “indisputable video evidence”.

Objective evidence

At the 2012 US Olympic trials, a finish-line photography system with cameras capable of capturing up to 5000 frames per second was used to determine the finishing order in sprint races.

Despite the precision of the system, judges were unable to separate Jeneba Tarmoh and Allyson Felix and a dead heat was recorded for third place.

US runners Jeneba Tarmoh and Allyson Felix. Paul Buck/EPA

Professor of communication studies at Wilfrid Laurier University Jonathan Finn points out:

Whether in the form of John C. Hemment’s late nineteenth century use of the camera to judge horse races or the use of highly sophisticated finish-line cameras at the 2012 US Olympic Trials, the rationale is the same: the image will reveal things that the naked eye cannot see.

He adds:

In this way, the use of the image at the US Trials mirrored a long-standing practice of privileging machine-made images as arbiters of truth, objectivity, and accuracy.

Two contributors to The Conversation have questioned the accuracy of machine-made images. Harry Collins wrote about the Hawk-Eye system and observed:

More and more, computers are able to simulate what looks like reality and this is dangerous for the future of society. The public needs to learn to question technological claims such as those that have been made for anti-missile weapons systems. In certain sports some spectators think that technology is infallible when it is not.

And Robin Braun suggests:

[…] electronic judging tries to do a good job of reducing the uncertainty of human observation in sport. Mostly it “gets it right” – more often than humans do – but there are no absolutes.

The 23rd player

I started working with referees and referee coaches in the 1990s. For the past two decades I have argued that the support given to referees should not be less than that given to players.

Referees have a difficult job. Mast Irham/EPA

My aim throughout this period has been to encourage the invisibility of referees while enhancing their training to make real-time decisions as accurately as possible.

I believe a referee is the 23rd player in any game of football – as does Scott Russell, who suggests in his masters thesis:

[…] administrators should aim to value the intentions and the role of the referee in the match as though they were a legitimate “23rd player”, with the actions and decisions of excellent referees, only contributing positively to the beauty of the game.

There is some evidence that video and computer simulation training can have a significant impact on positive, real-time, in-game decision-making by referees and their assistants.

While being the 23rd player, the referee is a member of a team of three also. There are two assistant referees to support the referee. At the 2014 World Cup all appointments to officiate at games is made to a team of three. These trios have the opportunity to prepare for games and anticipate their responses to high-speed play.

Maintaining flow

When we reflect on great games of football, we tend not to know who refereed these games. We do tend to remember poor officiating. Both experiences tell us something about the art of game management.

One of my main concerns about the calls for the use of more video evidence in football is that such evidence will impinge not only upon the flow of a game but also affect how referees and their assistants manage games. The best referees work closely with their assistants to deliver consistency throughout a game.

I have two other real dilemmas with calls for more video evidence to be used in football:

  1. the reliance we place on recorded images, even though there is evidence that these cannot guarantee absolute precision
  2. the use of video technologies at major sporting events is not scalable.

One of football’s claims to being a world game is that it does not require sophisticated equipment. It can be played almost anywhere. At a local level it requires a consensus about the rules in play, including the imagined height of a crossbar.

To play football, all you really need is the ball. Rakib Hasan Sumon/Flickr, CC BY

I am one of those spirit-of-the-game people. In game playing that is officiated I accept the risk of unfavourable and favourable treatment. I anticipate fallibility and recognise it as an inevitable part of a real-time event that is adjudicated by someone other than the players.

I imagine that given the importance of goal-scoring in football there will be increasing demand to adjudicate offside and penalty decisions with augmented video information. This brings about a very technical consideration of the status of machine-made images compared to the human eye.

Refereeing performance is a very public performance in televised sport. The profusion of digital images and commentary will require us to be very clear about how we manage video evidence for future forms of a game and for the referees who volunteer to be that 23rd player.

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