Blown Calls: How distracting is the human element in sports officiating?

Posted on August 17, 2010


We can learn a lot about how sports differ from each other by focusing on the role of the officials — referees, umpires, linesmen, judges, timekeepers, and of course video-replay officials.

Some sports involve officials being asked to make very “objective” clear-cut (if often difficult) calls: was serve on the line? who crossed the finish line first? was the ball sitting in a sand trap? did the puck cross the goal line? did the batter get to first base before the first baseman caught the ball? was the striker offside?

At the other end of the spectrum are a number of Olympic sports that use judges to pick out standard moves (did he spin three times in that jump?) and to evaluate subjective aesthetic elements (did she spin gracefully?).

And in between are the kinds of “judgment-based” calls (or no-calls) that arise in the course of most sports in which rival players and teams are in close contact: was that leg-to-leg contact a foul? is that blocker actually holding? did that backdoor slider break into the strike zone? was that player in an offside position involved in the play? was that a trip or a dive?

It seems that most sports that rely heavily on the first kind of “objective” calls from officials have incorporated technology to help the officials — most cleverly in tennis, and with video replay in many other sports. On the other hand, [Click on the button below to read more…] the use of replays, especially for penalty calls or reviews, is resisted in many sports that rely on officials making the third kind of “judgment” calls. There are two good reasons for this.

First, these calls often have to be made (or not made) in the flow of play, and the use of replay could interrupt the flow of play that is a vital part of some of these sports.

And second, in some of these sports, the referee is in a very important sense, “part of the game”. Nowhere is this more true than in soccer, where there is a dynamic relationship between the ways the players play the game on a given day, on the one hand, and the way the referee is calling fouls or making bookings, on the other. There is a similar dynamic in hockey, where two referees now share that duty (there are linesmen too, but their role is to make objective calls and to break up fights). The referee in these flow sports is a significant manager of the game in a way that is just not true in the stop-and-start, taking-turns sports like baseball and American football.

I noted before, in the midst of five posts (starting here) “inspired” by a notorious blown call earlier in this baseball season, that soccer and baseball are among the more “conservative” sports when it comes to rule-changes and to taking away the on-field official’s right to call it as they see it.

But the closer we look at the role of officiating in these two sports, the more we see how different they are.

(1) Almost all of the calls in baseball are of the first sort: where the rules are cut-and-dried and the umpire just has to witness what happened. There is an umpire at each base, so they will always be within 2 metres of the crucial safe-or-out calls. Some of these calls are nevertheless very cognitively and visually challenging. At least one of those umps is also in a reasonably good position to make line-calls and catch-calls in the outfield, though these will be further away. In soccer the referee’s assistants (linesmen) make similar calls, which are even more cognitively challenging. But most of the referee’s calls are of the third sort, above, involving much more discretion and judgment, and also more likely to be called from a suboptimal position (and often with the ref running, and with his or her eyes pulsating from the aerobic activity).

(2) In both soccer and baseball there is resistance to using replay because of the strong sense that the on-field official is “part of the game”. But the ways in which they are perceived as “part of the game” is quite different. As I argued before, the umps in baseball are part of the game in a largely ritualistic, aesthetic, tradition-bound way. You could literally have balls-and-strikes called by technology (which league already use to audit umps), and most other calls could be made by a person in a booth with a live TV feed. But filling the technical functional role of umps in this way would look and feel as if the heart and soul had been ripped out of “the national pastime”. It would be like taking clowns and the ringmaster out of the circus.

For reasons already mentioned, the referee in soccer is not replaceable in this way. He or she is part manager, part police officer, part nanny; and players respond to the signals he or she sends out in the way unruly employees, petty criminals, and children do in the presence or absence of an authority figure.

So although both sports have proven to be extremely reluctant to diminish the on-field official’s traditional authority, the rationale is ultimately more cultural (and conservative in a not-necessarily bad sense) in the case of baseball, and much more substantive in the case of soccer.

But this is not to say that the situation of officiating in soccer is satisfying, and couldn’t be significantly improved upon — as this summer’s World Cup made clear in all sorts of ways. There are enough things different about modern-day soccer to warrant innovation in officiating:

(i) The game is much faster than it was even 30 years ago. This means it is harder for the ref to be as close to the action. And since he is running more, and faster, he will be called upon to make a lot of visual calls while bouncing up and down or at least with eyes that are pulsating.

(ii) There is much more contact between the players, and it happens at higher speeds. The marking is much tighter than it was in previous eras of soccer, and with the players running much faster, there is a greater likelihood of relatively minor contact causing legitimate fouls.

(iii) I’m not sure if there is more fouling, gamesmanship, and diving going on in soccer now than in previous eras. But there is certainly a sense in which the current system with one referee essentially making all judgment calls about fouls and dives was envisaged by rule-makers who were counting on a significant amount of good sportsmanship on the part of the players. (In institutional design, the more social capital/ professionalism/ self-enforcement, the less need for monitoring. And the more you rely on self-enforcement, the higher the penalties for discovered transgressions.) If the original designers had imagined that players would be, in some sense, playing cat-and-mouse games with the ref as much as they are with their opponents, they might have put more refs on the field. Ice hockey now has two refs on a smaller surface, and American football has 7 officials distributed around the field, each responsible to monitor specific zones and kinds of plays. (And of course, both hockey and American football make extensive use of video replay, though not for calling penalties.)

The challenge for soccer is to ensure a better game is called without interrupted the flow of the game or undermining the referee’s ability to manage the game. Here are some suggestions.

(A) If hockey referees can split the management/enforcement duties, then surely a second referee could be added in soccer. The challenge and the need for close coordination between the two refs should be the same in both sports. Hockey made the transition seamlessly a few years ago. This would reduce the amount of real-estate each referee would have to cover, and allow them to be closer to the play. (Presumably they would each have primary responsibility for one half of the pitch.) It would give one ref eyes on the back of his or her head. And it would make it easier to spot dangerous play and to make more confident assessments of diving.

(B) Leagues and tournaments could make much more extensive use of replays to hand out retrospective yellow and red cards (and to remove unfair ones) — especially for diving and dangerous play. The primary effect of this would be to reduce infractions by significantly changing the incentive structure for players (i.e. by increasing the chance of getting caught).

(C) As many advocated during the World Cup (most definitively, Jonathan Wilson), and as even Sepp Blatter is beginning to realize, there should be some technological assistance on crucial calls like goals.

None of these suggestions is new, in fact I made some of them here. And yes, there are implementation issues and other complications (such as FIFA’s interest in having the sport playable in the most basic — read, impoverished — conditions). But looking at the specific nature of the official’s task in the sport suggests that the current system is out of joint.

This post is already too long, so I’ll make two addendums in the next one.