Wednesday’s Book Review: “Bad Call: Technology’s Attack on Referees and Umpires and How to Fix It”

Bad Call: Technology’s Attack on Referees and Umpires and How to Fix It. By Harry Collins, Robert Evans, and Christopher Higgins. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016.

There is no question but that technology has changed the way in which fan consume sports. Sometimes the intervention is modest and at other times it is profound. Always it is present. This book deals largely with team sports in Europe; a disproportionate amount of attention is given to soccer.

A critical component of this book is that it focuses on the use of technology to second guess umpires and referees. We have all seen them, a video replay in slow-motion from many different angles immediately after the completion of a play. Always we see them if we are watching the sporting event on television. Sometimes we see them in the stadium on a big scoreboard. Never do the referees or umpires have access to them before they make a call; they do it in real time and then are second guessed by everyone if they are in error. The instant replay that I have seen throughout my life, has been replaced by many newer technologies even more impressive. The authors spend time discussing the Hawk-Eye system used in tennis and cricket, and the goal-line and other precise technologies used in football, soccer, and a host of other fast moving sports.

Authors Harry Collins, Robert Evans, and Christopher Higgins make the case in Bad Call that these technologies, designed to help the quality of the games have become over burdensome, calling into question the quality of the work of the referees and umpires, to the extent that they have undermined the integrity of the actions on the field. We can all point to episodes of ineptitude in the sports we follow. My personal favorite is the Royals/Cardinals game six of the 1985 World Series in which first base umpire Don Denkinger blew a call that everyone saw on replay by calling Royal Jorge Orta safe at first. An argument ensued, but the umpires stood their ground. It so rattled the Cardinals that they lost this game and the Series. Reviewing the call using technology would have allowed the umpires to reverse the decision; this is a positive result of what might result, but the authors state that too much reliance on this technology has reduced the authority of the referees and umpires, compromised the joy of the game, stopped play too often, and generally lessoned the fan experience.

The authors make the case, repeatedly and with declining wit as the book progresses, that there are errors in the system regardless of whether humans or machines referee the games. Doing anything in real-time compounds the issue. Replays can help, but only when humans provide the interpretation. OK, that’s fine as far as it goes, but tell me something I didn’t know. They seek to do just that by analyzing in detail several seasons of English Premier League Football (soccer). They found that the use of technology did not significantly reduce the number of errors in calling the matches.

Of course, I’m not much interested in major league soccer, so these discussions were of less relevance to me than other examples. My passion, baseball, made it into the discussion as ancillary examples in only a few short sections. Most especially, the authors discuss the blown call by first-base umpire Jim Joyce in the top of the ninth inning with two outs that ended a perfect game pitched by Detroit Tiger Armando Galarraga in 2010. Both men recognized the error—Joyce immediately apologized and Galarraga accepted it with dignity—but there was nothing that could be down about since Major League Baseball had no provision at the time for review of controversial plays. That changed afterward, and there are often challenges on the field reviewed by staff and changed as appropriate. It has been a positive development, but one that has extended the times of games.

Finally, the authors are less interested in history than in what they contend is the erosion of the authority of referees and umpires by the technology. The technology certainly points out the flaws in calling games in real-time, and the authors insist that its use has not really made a difference in the quality of the outcomes. What the human eye sees is the critical component, per Collins, Evans, and Higgins.

When I started reading this book, I had hoped that this would offer a history of technology’s use in improving the play of various sports. There is an excellent book yet to be written on that subject, but Bad Call is not it. I would challenge anyone to research and write a history of how technology has changed the fan’s perceptions of sporting events. This would include the descriptions of radio announcers, television broadcasts moving from one to several camera angles, and the use of special effects, slow motion, stop action, etc., in analyzing the games. Anyway, it is a fruitful field for any historian of technology.

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One Response to Wednesday’s Book Review: “Bad Call: Technology’s Attack on Referees and Umpires and How to Fix It”

  1. Perhaps a couple of the most significant changes to be explored could include the increasing number and length of commercial breaks, countered by the home use of the digital video recorder to pause playback of games in real-time–or to enable fans to watch a complete game in under an hour. Technology has shortened our attention spans. Personally, I find it difficult these days to sit still for 3-1/2 hours to watch a football game on TV.


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