Sunday, 19 October 2014

TV refs/ the very definition of justice?

In his back page essay in today’s Observer (web version here) Andrew Anthony uses his visit to the NFL’s Gameday Central Studio in New York to argue for the greater use of technology in football.  I’ll be looking at, and agreeing with much of, what he says but also seeing what lessons this might have for wider society and vice versa.

Tennis players have an unlimited right to challenge decisions that can be reviewed by the technology but once they get three wrong in a set they can make no more challenges - imagine losing the right to appeal in Cricket or real life!

In the NFL, Anthony tells us, coaches have the right to make two challenges a game (three if they get both right) about refereeing calls (as long as it’s not a scoring play or a turnover), which are then sent to review and the replay official subjects every scoring play and turnover to review.

He mentions that on his arrival the most played video was of an NFL star, the CCTV footage of Ray Rice beating his fiancee.  He contrasts ‘the forensic analysis’ of NFL games with ‘almost criminally lenient’ punishment of Rice.  Here I only note the deployment of criminological/criminal justice metaphors and the part played by CCTV/video ‘surveillance’ in all such cases to concentrate on the justice and technology issues.

He notes we are used to analysis of soccer by TV pundits of FIFA’s foot-dragging on the issue of the use of technology and sets out the four arguments that have traditionally been employed against using technology in soccer are:

a) it would slow the game down; b) it would undermine the position of the referee; c) it would drive a wedge between the professional and amateur game; d) it would remove the element of human fallibility that is a key talking point.

He seeks to rebut all in quick order but let’s unpick them.  First the charge of slowing the game down.  He notes players feigning injury to which we might add really being injured (and note proposals in Rugby Union for TMOs to judge the offenders punishment from the victim’s reaction make some fear this will lead to soccer-style ‘simulation).  Secondly he sees this as adding suspense.  He doesn’t use the term ‘gamification’ or cite games theory but clearly these will be issues (see here for analysis of strategies for the use of challenges in tennis).  Athletes have in the past been accused of using the old false start rules to unsettle their opponents; though it too might add suspense.  It is said that the dictates of TV had something to do with the change from each runner being allowed one false start to each race being allowed one, and the NFL’s intimate embrace with broadcasters and advertisers indicates the utility of slowing the game down.  Elsewhere in the article he acknowledges the very different tempos of association and american football which means that the technology cannot be imported wholesale - or indeed human based judgement and punishment systems.

He rightly argues that TV - those pundits and everyone in the pub - is now used to show that the referee is wrong so why not use it to show when they are right.  This chimes some of the arguments about CCTV and surveillance more generally - and what of all those dressing room and bench cams now?  Might we relate some of the arguments about the trend towards body-mounted cameras for the police with their use by rugby and ice-hockey referees.  Here’s former Rugby Union star and solicitor Brian Moore on the subject, though he reviews it more as a viewer .

He is again right about the void that exists between levels in the game and might have mentioned that this existed long before the introduction of technology.  Thus ‘amateur’ tennis players still have to rely on the honesty of their opponents but the professionals had an army of linespeople, referees and Umpire long before the arrival of Hawkeye.  Indeed, given the ubiquity and growing cheapness of technology might an App be developed that set all the players phones to police the game?

Finally the issue of the ‘talking point’.  Whilst sport might once have been undertaken for social or cultural reasons much sport now occurs in front of and specifically for the media.  What Anthony does not mention in his article is that Dean Blandino the NFL’s ‘vice-president of officiating’ ‘talks’ through controversial points of ‘law’ each week in a video.  Clearly something for soccer and justice more generally to consider?

Anthony’s article is headlined: ‘Decisions made from on high and far away’ to note that the next NFL match at Wembley will ultimately be ‘meta-refereed’ from New York (how far is it to San Francisco?).  He is discussing technology and sport but my argument is that there are crossovers not only between sports as he argues but also into and from ‘real’ life.  Might we see the substantive, if not yet formal, downgrading of refs in all sports as bringing sport more in line with life.  In this argument referees become more police officers than the Judge Dredd position they once held of being judge and jury.  This removes, in part, ‘justice’ from the hurly-burly of the field to a sufficient height and distance.  Whether that is to the cool of the court or the heat of the studio is another matter.

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