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No. 3150:
Officiating Technology

by Andy Boyd

Today, kill the umpire! The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

If there's anything that makes a sports enthusiast howl, it's a bad call by an official. Many sports have dealt with the problem by introducing instant replay technology, thus allowing officials to overturn errant calls. But imagine for a moment if we went a step further. What if we allowed our technology to do the officiating?

In some cases it already is. Fencers score points when their weapons touch, or touché, target areas on their opponents' bodies. Electronic sensors are far better at this than the eyes of judges.

Quarter-finals Fernandez-Heinzer Masters epee 2012
Quarter-finals Fernandez-Heinzer Masters epee 2012 Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Tennis is in the process of relinquishing line calls to machines. Line umpires still make the calls, with instant replay technology as a backup. But when the machines are called upon, their word is pretty much final. And in November of 2017, the world's leading men's tennis organization held its first event officiated without any human line umpires, only machines.

Technology at Wimbledon
Technology at Wimbledon Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Sports won by speed have long relied solely on timing technology. In sports like bobsledding, where wins are measured in hundredths of a second, technology is indispensable.

John Napier-Olympic Bobsled
John Napier-Olympic Bobsled Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Touches. Line calls. Timing. All activities that don't require interpretation; activities for which technology is particularly well suited.

Yet, even where the technology exists, some sports are reluctant to adopt it. Consider baseball. The technology not only exists for calling balls and strikes, it's already in ballparks. Sportscasters use it during games. And it's generally accepted that when the umpire and the technology differ, it's the umpire that's wrong.

And he's wrong more often than you might think. Analyzing data compiled by major league baseball, the best umpires make a bad call on one in eight pitches. The worst make a bad call on one in six. It's a tough job, witnessed through a heavy mask over the shoulder of the catcher while someone's hurling balls toward you at one hundred miles-per-hour.

Pitches Called
Photo Credit: E. A. Boyd

Of course, anyone who follows baseball will tell you it's all part of the game. Crowds jeering at questionable calls. Coaches challenging umpires. Players ejected from games. But there's also the unspoken give and take as batters and pitchers adjust to the idiosyncrasies of the man behind the plate. Would the precision of technology make the game better or worse?

Jeff Isom arguing with an umpire
Jeff Isom arguing with an umpire Photo Credit: Wikimedia

And what of the holy grail, of machines capable of refereeing football or soccer or any number of sports without the need for human intervention? Camera-equipped drones connected to computers are far faster and more accurate than human perception. In a world where we consider placing our lives in the hands of self-driving cars, the technology for sports officiating is surely within reach. The question is whether we desire such technology. And whatever we decide, there will always be someone ready to howl at a bad call.

Referee announces call at UCLA at Cal
Referee announces call at UCLA at Cal Photo Credit: Wikimedia

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

The Associated Press. "Robot Umpires are Here! Is it Baseball's Future?" New York Post, July 21, 2015. See also: Accessed November 14, 2017.

Cork Gaines. What an MLB Strike Zone Really Looks Like and Why Players are Always So Mad About It. From the Business Insider website: September 17, 2014. Accessed November 14, 2017.

Scott Lindholm. How Well Do Umpires Call Balls and Strikes? From the Beyond the Box Score website: January 27, 2014. Accessed November 14, 2017.

Farhad Manjoo. Hey, Robot Ref! Are You Blind? Should the Sports World Replace Human Umpires With Computers? Slate, September 2, 2008. See: Accessed November 14, 2017.

Danielle Nelson. The Technology Behind Fencing. From the Temple News website: March 17, 2015. Accessed November 14, 2017.

Hyuen Moh (John) Shin. Technology in Refereeing - Treat or Threat? From the Duke University Soccer Politics website: January 14, 2015. Accessed November 14, 2017.