Over and out: are digital decisions ruining the beautiful game?

Digital technology is becoming more and more influential in the execution of crucial decisions in football, cricket and tennis. Is this always a good thing? Harry Collins’s new book ‘Bad Call’ answers the appeal.

When we think about the woefully deteriorating over rate in Test Match cricket, we tend to take it as axiomatic that it is somehow the players’ fault. They’re lazy, negative and cheating in such a way as to suck the joy out of the wonderful experience that is watching cricket played at its highest level. While some of the above might be true, the real reason for the game grinding to a halt is that we are now using too much decision-assisting technology, applying it wrongly and in the case of obviously bad referrals, abusing it cynically in order to waste time.

“In televised games the match officials’ authority has been weakened and there’s nothing we can do about it,” says Harry Collins, one third of the authorship trio responsible for ‘Bad Call’, a book that examines “technology’s attack on referees and umpires”. One of its main points is that because technology puts the crowd or the TV viewer in a better position to see what’s going on than the umpire or the referee, a disproportionate level of attention focuses on the minutiae of applying the letter of the law through replay and track estimator technology (which takes a long time), rather than allowing a qualified human to apply the spirit of the law (which can be done in real time).

You may get more accurate decisions with the former, but the implications for cricket as the last bastion of sporting integrity and the spirit of fair play are frankly disastrous.

Imagine the situation where a batter is on 99: why not completely break his concentration by referring an obviously ‘not out’ appeal to the examination of the off-field third match official, who has already seen with his own eyes what has happened? Furthermore, so has the crowd. Further to that, what the introduction of replay and track estimation technology has done to cricket is to butcher one of its first ethical principles (the benefit of doubt lies with the batter) by transferring benefit of the doubt to the umpire. There’s no need to worry about the game dying slowly: we’re summarily executing it with technology.

“Sports decision aids have certainly been introduced without the authorities thinking about them carefully,” says Collins. “That’s why we wrote this book. At the moment you have nonsense when it is claimed that exact measurements can be made without any margin of error.” All engineers will know that “a good measurement will contain an estimate of error. Unfortunately, this is not being explained to the public,” he adds.

He goes on to say that when it comes to close line calls in tennis, more could be achieved by broadcasting the toss of a coin “than by pretending that this kind of event could be reconstructed with millimetre accuracy”.

And here’s the next key point: do we want accuracy, or do we want justice? Do we want to see match officials undermined in public? “One doesn’t want TV viewers seeing that match officials are getting things wrong. Given this, there are some kinds of competition where the use of, say, very accurate timing technology seems appropriate. Formula 1 is an obvious example. But we can also time athletes to the same accuracy. But it seems silly to me to say that, when one athlete runs a race 1/100th of a second faster than another, then one is ‘faster’ than the other. There’s too much else going on. But this is arguable.”

We read it for you: Bad Call

Technology is changing sport, but no one seems to have thought about what it means. This is the claim made in a new book on technology-assisted decision taking entitled ‘Bad Call’.

Co-author Harry Collins contends that while most people think that the more accuracy in reconstructing what happens on the sports field the better, this can sometimes lead to nonsense, such as the claim that the footprint of a tennis ball can be measured to a millimetre or, effectively, that goalposts are erected with a micrometer. It all started with television replays and since then match officials’ authority has been ever more eroded.

We can’t uninvent technology, but we can give authority back to referees and talk more sense about what can and should be measured on the sports field, which will ultimately put the fairness back into sport.

Collins is an avid watcher of TV sport. He’s also a serious scientist, having spent the past 44 years working with gravitational waves. He describes his life as being embedded in science and technology. What this means for the Cardiff University-based author and academic is that the 73-year-old now knows “a lot about what scientists consider to be sound and reliable measurement”.

He recalls how a “back of an envelope” calculation led him to conclude that a household-name track estimator “could not possibly be as accurate as it appeared”, and when he made this point at a seminar, the manufacturer took a dim view of the calculation, resulting in a level of discourtesy arising between the two parties. Undeterred, Collins realised that what had started as idle curiosity had “become something worth writing about”. The result is this highly entertaining, eminently readable, occasionally infuriating and quite brilliant book.

It’s infuriating because Collins and his co-authors are right. As much as we will dislike hearing technology being criticised, and as much as we’ll recoil from the proposition that there are times when we are simply better off without it, the truth is that in the context of decision-making in sport we’re using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut. More than that, we’re using a sledgehammer with bad technique and timing, with flagrant disregard for the human skills that are already in place.

On the other side of the coin, says Collins, “there can be nothing ethically wrong with giving the match official some help, or there would be no winner’s tape, no goal net, no bails on the wickets, no photo-finish, and so on. These old devices are as much technology as the modern ones. The modern ones just aren’t being used properly.”

Collins thinks that there is a compromise solution, where the technology is deployed in such a way that the “un-technologised game is kept as close to the technically assisted game as possible”. The way to do this, he says, is to apply a principle called RINOWN (i.e., the match official is ‘right if not wrong’). In other words, every game played should be adjudicated by an official empowered to make an immediate decision. When televised, under appropriate conditions, technology will be given 30 seconds to prove that the official was clearly wrong, in which case the decision will be reversed. If it is not quickly obvious that the official was wrong, the original decision will stand.

Apply something this clear-headed and, you never know, we might see ourselves in the undreamed of situation of completing 90 overs by stumps with both teams leaving the field satisfied that they have been treated fairly under the laws of the game. 

‘Bad Call’ by Harry Collins, Robert Evans and Christopher Higgins is published by the MIT Press, £19.95

Extract: When TV messes with the game

Any crowd that benefits from replay screens located at the sports venue has lost its epistemological disadvantage [ie, ability to remain biased] with regard to a range of decisions.

With multiple cameras, often at least one camera angle will provide a vantage point that is as good as, or better than, that of the umpire or referee. Replays, especially slow-motion replays, also put the television viewer, whether at home or at the match, in a still better position to make a judgment than the umpire or referee. The television replay destroys the ‘superior view’ advantage of umpires. In many cases it also destroys their ‘specialist skill’ advantage, since a good part of that specialist skill is to make the right decision in real time.

In live officiating, the referee or umpire has to judge an almost instantaneous sequence of events that require processing as much at the unconscious level as at the conscious level. This takes the experience and practice required to grasp a situation as a whole rather than to assemble a decision out of discrete observations.

To put this another way, part of specialist umpiring and refereeing skills comprises ‘somatic tacit knowledge’, the kind of skills that we build up in our bodies, such as the ability to drive or type fluently, or ride a bike without thinking about it, or, as in the old cliché, the skill of a centipede that trips when it thinks about how to walk.

Somatic tacit knowledge can enable a match official to appraise a rapidly unfolding situation in an instant without conscious calculation. But with TV replays, the skill becomes redundant. And since umpires and referees do make mistakes, TV turns what would have been presumptive justice into transparent injustice.

Edited extract from ‘Bad Call’ by Harry Collins, Robert Evans and Christopher Higgins, reproduced with permission

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