On July 10, 2019, the very first “Robot Umpire” in North America went live. The tech debuted in the independent Atlantic League’s midseason All-Star Game. The technology relies upon a computer system to determine balls or strikes, but a human umpire still relays the outcome. There are still glitches to work out, but it looks as though Major League Baseball is heading in the direction to remove subjectivity and discretion from the umpires. In other major sports, we see the same drive to replace human judgement with technological measurement.
In the NFL, a blown pass interference call in the 2019 NFC Championship game between the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams led to the immediate implementation of a coaches challenge for pass interference. Essentially, coaches can now look to the instant replay and contest the subjective call of the official. In the NHL, a costly yet unwarranted 5 minute major given to the Las Vegas Golden Knights in Game 7 of their second rounds playoff series against the San Jose Sharks this past spring likewise got the NHL to change its rule concerning a coaches challenge for major penalties.
Why the intense drive in professional sport to replace the discretion of the umpires for a central decision-making apparatus guided by technology? Part of it lies in the desire to determine an objective winner and loser. Back when modern sports emerged, it was up to the amateur gentlemen athletes to rationally determine if rules were broken and an honour system set in place to police early matches. In fact, many early organized leagues did not include referees or umpires at all. After all, an amateur gentleman would never break a rule, and if he did, would immediately call himself for a penalty. If you’ve ever played pickup basketball, for example, you’ll know exactly the type of code required to call fouls.
Some today will point to the rising acceptability of sports gambling, it’s legalization, and the partnerships between major gaming entities and professional sports leagues as a reason why we now see a drive to get every call exactly right. With hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, leagues need to be sure their products deliver a decisive winner and loser, no more gray areas. The existence of gambling actually gave rise to the emergence of the rules in modern sport. Wealthy aristocrats who wanted to bet on contests in the 18th century, horseracing for example, had to ensure a fair contest. Without uncertainty, betting isn’t exciting, but it also must be fair. Gambling ensured sports were fair in the past and that can partially explain this drive, but I think there’s something deeper going on.
Sports are both instrumental and aesthetic. It is the only cultural activity that straddles objectivity and subjectivity in such a dramatic fashion. I believe sport must produce an objective winner, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some subjective determination in how we get there. The discretion of the referee can be likened to legal theories. For instance, do we want the referees to call the game by the book, or do we want them to use discretion in applying the rules? It’s the same as mandating minimum sentences for crimes as opposed to allowing judges to determine sentencing based on the individual case. Both sides have merit. Many of us tend to answer based on which scenario benefits the team we cheer for in that moment, we are tribal after all, but is one approach better?
With the move towards more instant replay and robotic referees, it’s clear that sports leaders are pushing towards one side, no discretion allowed. But I think this is mistaken. Will we get the right call more often than not, it’s likely. Yet we will be losing an important element of sports, mediation of the rules and acceptance of the outcome. The early amateurs did not use referees, but if there was a contentious call or play, the captains would discuss the issue civilly and come to an agreement. That form of human interaction is not perfect, but it is human. Using technology to avoid the messiness of mediation is a type of retreat from the moral elements sport possesses and that we try to teach our children through sport.
It also robs the spectators of the romance and imperfection of the game. Do we really want instant replay to go back and tell us Franco Harris’ “Immaculate Reception” really did or did not hit the ground? Or is the sport world richer for that myth? I tend to believe arguing about sports is more fun that having a robot determine the outcome for us. It was a shame when umpire Jim Joyce robbed Armando Galarraga of a perfect game, but we witnessed the beautiful human moment of him apologizing, breaking down into tears distraught with his decision, and Galarraga comforting him. It was not perfect, but it was human.
The more and more we substitute technology for our discretion, the more willing we are to sacrifice these human elements of sport. No more mythology, no more romance, no more perpetual arguments (the best friend of all sports bars). After all, we preach to ignore the referees and just play the game, control what you can control. By giving in to this creeping technological decision making, we’ve given up on that mantra. If you don’t like the call, get a robot who will make the right one. Instant replay and technology are here to stay, but it’s clear that we are losing important elements in sports as we turn more and more away from its human roots, flaws and all.