Sports fans love to hate umpires.
For as long as there’s been competition, there have been officials whose job it is to interpret the laws of a game and make crucial judgements.
With the introduction of technology through slow-motion replays and decision review systems, we now have even more reason to show our frustration when an umpire makes a terrible call.
What was first introduced to improve the spectator experience through analysis and instant replays now shadows the action. We appear to be drifting away from human discretion and traditional practices to accommodate, what I have penned, ‘technological officiating’.
Senior lecturer in sport management at the University of Portsmouth Dr Tom Webb addressed the controversy and criticism around accepting technology as a part of decision making and officiating in sport:
“There is a line that shouldn’t be crossed,” he says.
“We should be able to embrace technology and its use within sport, given the age in which we live. The key is minimal intrusion and maximum impact, although this is not always easy to achieve.”
As technology is increasingly being worked into everyday life to improve convenience and efficiency, we are becoming more reliant on technology-driven decisions.
This is particularly evident in elite sport, as umpiring decisions become increasingly exposed to scrutiny and attention.
“We are willing to accept technology into sport, as we do in society, but we are less willing to accept mistakes,” says Webb.
Webb believes the issues centre around consumers expecting 100 per cent accuracy – an unfair expectation considering the subjective decisions required in sports and the authenticity of developing technology.
“The problem is that even with review systems, [decision making] is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to achieve,” he adds.
General manager of competition operations at the NBL Sean Gottliebsen discussed the implementation of the instant replay system and its importance in ensuring the league can stay in touch with the latest technology solutions.
“Prior to technology allowing reviews being available, officials had to live and die by the sword, now at least on some occasion’s officials have another option up their sleeve,” Gottliebsen says.
While the review system confirms decisions are precise by correcting original judgements, Gottliebsen does not believe sports are overly reliant on the process.
“We first rely on our officials to be appropriately trained and educated to ensure that on-court decision making is at its best and then we complement this with a thoroughly tested review system,” he says.
Due to the education and experience of professional sports officials, Gottliebsen attributes most errors to poor positioning or obstructed visibility during fast-moving sports impacting whether an umpire receives enough information.
“Review systems can complement an official particularly in these types of situations as it allows for the correct call to be made more often than not,” he adds.
Sports opinion delivered daily
With all this in mind and more comprehensive technology on the way, when debating whether new solutions should be implemented, sporting leagues have a lot to consider to ensure the process is beneficial, complementary and does not undermine the on-field standing of officials.
Reflecting on the issue as a whole, Dr Webb concluded, “We need to be careful what we ask for, once technology has been introduced it is very difficult to go back.”