Everyone can get their way in automated officiating debate

Umpires are being put in a losing game, we can fix that

Criticizing referees and umpires is a very popular thing to do, probably because it’s exceedingly easy. Mistakes are made — and with virtually every angle covered by television cameras, we can plainly recognize them.

These sorts of complaints rarely lead to interesting or worthwhile discourse. But they’re hard to ignore, particularly when obvious officiating issues have dramatic effects on outcomes.

Major League Baseball provided Bay Area fans with a particularly flagrant mistake to gripe about last week when Brandon Crawford’s obvious home run was overturned to a ground-rule double on replay. This error, for which the league actually issued a statement of apology, has been well-covered and isn’t overly complicated. The basics are: Crawford hit a home run, the league’s replay officials were somehow unaware of the AT&T Park ground rules, and the Giants (along with the unfortunate young fan involved) paid a relatively steep price.

There’s no sense belaboring another loss in a season beset by defeat, but there is certainly cause to criticize an elaborate replay system where frustrated-looking umpires put on headsets and stare into space for four minutes only to return with an incorrect ruling from a mysterious “replay center” that’s literally thousands of miles away. Moreover, there’s good reason for general dissatisfaction with the state of sports officiating when millions of fans can often reach more accurate conclusions more quickly from the comfort of their couches.

Sports television technology has created a problem for officiating; perhaps more accurately, officials have a problem born of a refusal to fully embrace that technology. Whether the decisions are made by the leagues or by the officials themselves, the in-home viewing experience for major professional sports has progressed well beyond what officials can actually see from their vantage points on the playing field.

Leagues have responded to this deficit, almost uniformly, by establishing elaborate and usually ridiculous replay review systems. The NFL forces coaches to literally gamble their valuable timeouts simply to get awful calls turned into good ones, Major League Baseball has a centralized review hub that can’t keep track of ground rules, and the NBA’s policy suggests that they only REALLY care about correct calls in the final two minutes of the game.

All of them seem to take twice as long as they need to and have lower success rates than one would hope.

But the worst part is that the obvious solution is literally right in front of our eyes. In adopting any form of replay review, the leagues are all already admitting that today’s myriad of television cameras offer a better view of the action than on-site officials have — so why on earth do we have on-site officials at all?

I can understand officiating unions’ fears of being replaced by computers, but why not use computers to your advantage? An umpire in front of a giant, hi-def, center-field-view camera feed would have a much better angle on the strike zone than he does from behind home plate. An NBA referee wouldn’t have to sprint into viewing position if she had control of multiple cameras at her fingertips. NFL umpires and linesmen would have a significantly better vantage point from an overhead camera pointed at the line of scrimmage than from downfield or off to the side where they regularly have their lines-of-sight blocked by 300-pound linemen.

Take referees and umpires off of the field and put them in video rooms. You want someone to enforce order on-site? Hire security guards. With the possible exception of Ed Hochuli, refs in the NFL and NBA would have no shot at stopping any sort of physical altercation if players wanted to engage in that sort of behavior. MLB umpires usually show up about five minutes into bench-clearing brawls.

There will always be mistakes when attempting to adjudicate the fine motor movements of athletes moving faster and hitting harder than most of us can even imagine. And even if referees are perfect there will be criticism, because some rulings are inherently judgment calls and the vast majority of people watching any given sporting event are wildly biased.

Because they are forced to use their naked eyes, without access to inarguably better angles and clearer pictures, officials quite literally cannot see some of the events they are forced to rule on.

Here’s the good news: It doesn’t take much to solve this. We have the technology — you and I use it every day to watch our favorite sports on television. Even without a DVR, we see so many replays of any borderline call that there is rarely any doubt of the correct ruling. To the extent that we still have debates, we are mostly just litigating our biases (which is another time-honored sports tradition and isn’t going anywhere).

The problem isn’t whiny sports fans, it’s plays like Brandon Crawford’s should-have-been-a-home-run. The problem is when everybody besides the referees and umpires knows what should happen, and it doesn’t happen.

Since there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that professionally employed sports officials are better at judging what they see than I am, I have to believe that if they could see what I see on a regular basis, they would be better at their job than I am.

Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. Find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.

Matt Kolsky

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