I've been thinking and chatting with friends quite a bit lately about the current and future use and place of technology in sports. More specifically, do we want to replace the call making responsibilities of referees across several sports with machine functions. Technology has certainly evolved to the point where this can realistically happen without too much effort. We have already started to see technology widely used to varying degrees, but primarily via instant replay as an officiating aid in tennis, football, baseball, hockey and basketball. Tennis has gone a step further in replacing line judges with the lauded HawkEye or Cyclops systems. However, at the heart of the discussion, not unlike other current social conversations, is how far should technology go with respect to replacing the human factor? Do we really want to rid sports of infallibility and the inherent level of chance it adds to games? Two primary examples for me exist in baseball and basketball.
In baseball, a home plate umpire is responsible for "defining" the strike zone. Major League Baseball's official definition of this zone is "the area over home plate from the midpoint between a batter's shoulders and the top of the uniform pants -- when the batter is in his stance and prepared to swing at a pitched ball -- and a point just below the kneecap." The key word here, of course, is area. The dimensions of a strike zone in game play can vary from batter to batter, from umpire to umpire and from game to game with many variables coming into play including the height of the batter, whether their stance is upright or crouched, the depth perception of the umpire and maybe even his/her mood. Meanwhile, baseball fans watching a game on TV or online are provided with a computerized pitch tracker box through which they can see a pitched ball pass or not. And, as you'd expect, the calls made by the human umpire vs. the hard facts revealed by the pitch tracker are not always consistent. I'll admit to having, on occasion, tried shouting at the TV about an erroneous call loud enough for the ump to hear through the airwaves. My objections tend to have more to do with consistency than accuracy, which can also be chocked up as a "human" failing.
The challenge for referees tasked with determining what is or is not a foul in basketball, professional or otherwise, is even more daunting. Technically, no body contact is allowed in basketball, but anyone who's played the game will quickly point out this is far from the case or even possible in a live scenario. So here again, basketball officials are required to use their discretion and decide "how much" body contact should be allowed relative to a play being made or shot being taken. The main variables here include the positioning of the referees, the speed of the game and the size of the players. Here too, we the television-viewing audience have the luxury of instant, slow motion replays taken from a plethora of different angles. To their credit, the NBA has likewise implemented instant replay to help make certain decisions, but you certainly can't stop a game to manually review a play every time there is a suspected foul or not.
This battle between the desire for accuracy and the romance with tradition will no doubt wage on for some time to come. One significant force in this battle is the amount of money associated with these sports and global wagering on said-same. I'm guessing we'll see more technology invade our games, particularly as those who've grown up with it become a larger percentage of the audience.