Tradition vs. Technology
The year is 2020. Tom Brady (who is still in Pro Bowl form at the age of 43) drops back to pass. He hits Rob Gronkowski at the 10 yard line right at the sideline, and Gronk falls immediately out of bounds. A horn sounds. A voiceover announces: “The pass is incomplete.” No referees are on the field.
The recent referee disaster started to get me thinking (again) about just how different sports might be without human officiating. With the advances in technology in recent years, especially regarding the implementation of instant replay that seems to be expanding each season, will we ever see the day when referees and umpires are replaced completely by an instant video review and automated call like was described above? Seeing how ineffective the replacement referees were (even considering this was a short-term circumstance), it’s not entirely hard to argue that the human element causes problems, sometimes so much so that the outcome of the game is affected.
I’m a traditionalist—in most instances I prefer the game be played the way it always has. However, the benefits of instant replay, especially on scoring plays as the NFL and NCAA now have, is a compromise even I am OK with. Similarly, the NBA and NCAA use replays to determine if a shooter’s basket was a two or three-point shot. Even the MLB has instant replay to review certain close calls on debatable home runs. I think these are all good things.
While there are potential problems in the short-term with adding new layers of officiating managed by technology (i.e. slowing the game down by reviewing too many plays), what would happen if we ever got to the point of automating some or all of this? If the MLB wanted to implement an automated call for a batter’s strike zone, they could do it tomorrow. But is it worth it to off-put fans for such a long-standing tradition of an umpire making those calls?
I’m in favor of finding a balance, which I think will come over time. But I also think it’s inevitable that we see technology continue to play a bigger role in the future when it comes to making the right call to avoid the type of controversies we saw these last few weeks in the NFL. Even when playing Spogo, you’ll often be able to wager on the outcome of a close challenge as it is being reviewed.
After Andrew reviewed what I had written above before I published it, he wondered why I didn’t take more of a stance on one side or the other. My response—there are not just two sides to this issue. My stance is the balance between tradition—human officials performing at their highest level, and technology–ensuring that, when appropriate, the correct call was made. A computer will have a hard time deciding when to throw a flag (or blow a horn) for unsportsmanlike conduct if two players from opposing teams start shoving each other. A live referee conferring with his team of officials is often in a better position to make a judgment on whether a bobbled pass was a completion or not. I could try to list off, for each sport, the types of plays and calls I’d like to see made a certain way–but I’ve already bored you quite enough for one day.
Comments and responses are welcome.