As much as some of the problems in professional sports today may seem endless, issues with officiating are genuinely intertwined with the ideas of sports themselves. No genuine sport just moves calmly along without someone having to make a call about an ambiguous in-game moment. And, since we’re all human, mistakes are bound to happen in this process. From that point of view, it seems like officiating and the baggage associated with it is so fundamental to sports that they could just be ignored. Why then, do we still see intense discussions left and right about officiating in almost every mainstream professional sport possible?
The simple, maybe somewhat obvious, answer is that officiating is constantly evolving, as players, fans, and all levels of sports organizations work together to see how they can improve it. This involves striking a balance between trying to get as much justice served as possible (in the form of accurate calls, proper response to misconduct on the field, etc.) while not taking away from the pure, competitive, free-flowing aspect of most sports. What makes the evolution of officiating more interesting is that different sports have approached it in a variety of angles that are worth comparing. In particular, the varying degrees to which these sports have embraced technology is a key indicator of how their officiating has evolved.
The NFL has probably embraced technology the most, granting head coaches the chance to make up to three challenges during games regarding officiating calls made. The situations that are being challenged are reviewed on video, and overturned if the video replays show enough evidence against the original call. Not all calls can be challenged, however, partially due to the fact that coaches only have a limited set of challenges that often run out. NFL referees are under constant scrutiny by the fan base for making a few notable errors that have changed the outcomes of games. Examples include the infamous Dez Bryant catch/drop debate last year, as well as a more recent incident last week where the Jaguars beat the Ravens on a field goal that only happened after referees failed to flag the Jaguars on a false start penalty. The NFL does acknowledge many of the mistakes they make, including this one with the Jaguars, so it is clear that they are very conscious of their officiating quality. For the NFL, officiating will continue to develop as the rules regarding when referees can use technology are adjusted to catch situations like these.
While most sports have accepted technology as a necessary tool for officiating, not all have embraced it as fully as the NFL has. Major League Baseball, for example, uses it to judge situations where there is ambiguity regarding base hits and home runs. For the most part, though, many fans and analysts claim that the MLB is too concerned with pleasing “old-school” fans and has shunned many potential areas for technology to be introduced as a result.
One aspect of the game that is particularly suspect to human error is umpire calls regarding balls and strikes. Tracking technology like PITCHf/x is being used to teach umpires outside of games how to better identify balls and strikes, and their accuracy has improved from 83% to 86% as a result. While this is a decent accuracy for humans, Business Insider noted that it still amounts to around 50,000 incorrect calls for the average umpire during the season. What is probably the most infuriating to fans is that they have the solutions in their homes; TV broadcasts include automated pictures of the strike zone that allow fans to know the correct calls while having to see umpires make mistakes. With ESPN recently unveiling a three-dimensional strike zone in their broadcasts, it seems more inevitable that the MLB will have to utilize an automated strike zone very soon. Although some fans of older generations might be upset at reduction in the role of the umpire, this should be offset by vastly improved accuracy of strike zone calls. The MLB has the technology it needs readily available, and just needs to embrace it now.
The last sport worth looking at on this spectrum of officiating technology acceptance is soccer, which has almost completely shunned the use of technology to aid in officiating. The result has been that officiating errors are more ingrained in how players actually play the game, in the sense that many players try to get incorrect calls from the referees that are beneficial for their teams. The culture of diving, which is when players fall to the ground trying to earn a foul, is evident in even the best players. Furthermore, many fans who’ve watched a game on television can recall a time when they’ve seen an incorrect offsides call on a goal, either where a legal goal was disallowed by a flawed offside call or a goal was allowed that should have been called offsides. Again, fans at home can see the errors that referees are making.
However, in this case, I think that technology should be kept out for the most part. Unlike baseball and football, soccer doesn’t have constant pauses in play; the game flows non-stop for two 45-minute periods. Even when injuries happen, there is an effort to get the game back running as quickly as possible since the clock doesn’t stop. With that in mind, FIFA’s current ban on something that would be as time-intrusive as instant replay makes sense.
Yet, the one exception that is questionable calls in regards to goals; since one goal can often decide the outcome of an entire 90 minutes of play, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to allow instant replay in the case of a contested goal or offside call. This would ultimately require a stoppage of time, so perhaps only one “challenge” per head coach should be allowed in those instances. Unfortunately, FIFA isn’t quite functioning properly at the moment given all its corruption issues, so this development of soccer’s officiating could be far off. That isn’t the worst thing, though, since soccer has managed to remain the top sport in the world despite the constant officiating issues. It could deal just fine without the change I proposed, although it seems like a waste considering that the technology is readily available and wouldn’t be too time-expensive in a game.
In the end, how officiating develops really depends on what the people involved, including players, fans, and coaches, feel is worth prioritizing. The NFL is constantly looking to improve its officiating through technology, while soccer and baseball prefer to focus on training better referees. There are obviously plenty of sports that I’ve left out who fall on different parts of this officiating evolution spectrum.
Ultimately, what is consistent across sports is that everyone wants better calls to be made at the end of the day, which means that we will continue to see changes being made no matter the sport. That’s a good thing to keep in mind the next time you get frustrated with a bad call. Although we might have to go through watching the growing pains, we can still appreciate the end product that all sports across the board are working towards, perfect officiating. I have no idea what that would look like (which means it’s probably very far off), but, as a dedicated sports fans, it’ll be nice to see all the changes that come about as a result of that effort.