After Further Review

So, yeah.

To say it’s been a hell of a year here at Machine Headquarters would be an understatement. For the one person most directly responsible for making sure the Machine is cranking out new posts, saying that’s an understatement would be an understatement. Lest we fall into an infinite loop of understating, we’ll just stop there. Expect more posts moving forward.

Maybe.

Or at least you can expect this one won’t be unposted.

We could talk about any number of things today, but our infallible random number generator has determined we will talk about something that is plaguing every professional sports league in the world, seemingly to a greater extent and with worse consequences every year: bad officiating.

As we explore the issue and the reasons why, let’s focus on the four major sports with which the Machine is most familiar: football (hereafter to be interpreted as American football), hockey, basketball and baseball. The crux of the matter can really be understood with just one of these, so let’s start with football. Like any major professional sport, professional football in the U.S. is a massive money-making machine, and its value grows at an insane pace over time. I remember when John Elway signed a million dollar contract that seemed outrageous, a number that represents a low-risk one-year deal today. The entire Denver Broncos team was purchased by Pat Bowlen for $78 million in 1984. Last year it sold to its newest ownership for $4.65 billion. Multiply that by 32 teams and you get a sense of how much money resides just in the NFL. But that’s not all: underlying all of it is a vast infrastructure for building the talent that eventually glues us to our TVs every Sunday (and Monday and Thursday and so on). That infrastructure starts with peewee football and extends all the way through the now semiprofessional college ranks, where some kids make considerably more than the current starting QB for the 49ers. With all that money, one thing that has changed dramatically since the earlier days of the NFL is the unprecedented combinations of strength and speed that are exhibited by the top players in the game. Meanwhile, strategy has to evolve every year as well, inspiring a similar level of growth in processing power for both QBs and defensive signal callers. In both mind and body, the game is faster than it has ever been.

Meanwhile, there is zero evidence of any even remotely similar growth in the abilities of officials to keep up with the faster and faster game. Again, we’re not just talking about running speed, but also speed in decision making. Many have suggested the solution is to have full-time officials. The NFL could certainly afford that, but it’s not going to solve the problem on its own. It would need to be accompanied by a wide-reaching investment in building up the same kind of growth infrastructure for officiating that we have for the athletes.

Whichever sport you’re watching, that’s the one that currently has the worst officiating in the world. If you’re watching football, you’re seeing phantom offsides calls, complete inconsistency in the application of personal fouls, and baffling hits and misses on interference calls. If you’re watching basketball, you’re seeing different standards applied to different teams and players, refs who desperately want to be the focus of attention, and similar inconsistencies as football for what constitutes a foul. If you’re watching baseball, you’re seeing the strike zone overlaid on the screen right in front of your very eyes as the umpire calls ball four strike three. If you’re watching hockey, you’re seeing skaters go the box for doing something that someone else in the same game just minutes earlier did without any consequence.

It’s also worth noting that as bad as the officiating can be, the review process is often inexplicably even worse. What should be a check of some sort on bad calls often doesn’t work for various convoluted reasons across the different leagues.

There is no doubt that some officials enter their games with biases, even if they are unaware. There is also no doubt that a lot of calls are just wrong and not intentionally so. All of this traces back to the officials being just as human as the players. When the players make mistakes, that’s just part of the game, and it’s part of why the game is so compelling. But when the officials make mistakes, it’s agonizing, and our brains can’t reconcile it with “just being part of the game”. And this will only get worse over time as all the games get faster. What can we do? Maybe it’s time to ask (and mean it) why we think we need human beings making these calls at all.

Let’s pivot to baseball and the most obvious change that has already been discussed at length: an automatic strike zone. The math and the processing power are there already. It’s why we see that box on the screen. One may argue about the box’s accuracy, but I guarantee it’s a lot more accurate than the human being constantly calling strikes way outside that box. The collection of instrumentation required to create that box could also be used to determine foul balls, safe versus out, balks, check swings… you name it. Hell, tennis has been doing this for years now when a ball is hit right along the line. The Machine is not convinced baseball needs ANY officials on the field.

Let’s go back to football, where some things are admittedly more complex because of the contact that is so rare in a game of baseball. But some things are quite similar in nature to baseball: field goals that go over one of the posts, first downs, touchdowns – again, you watch a football game and occasionally the announcer will remind you that first down line on the screen is not official – to which the correct response is “why the hell not”? The processing power is there to make that line move with the field – it’s going to be far more accurate than two refs running in from the sidelines trying to compromise on their always-unaligned eyeballing. The football itself could probably be instrumented to detect when the motion of a bobbled ball becomes the motion of a ball that’s moving with a player’s body because they have it controlled.

Personal fouls, interference, etc… these are a little tougher, and they all have analogies in basketball and hockey. But all these games have enough cameras these days that Artificial Intelligence (AI) can figure it out as well as and much more consistently than a human being (and especially a bunch of different human beings). If you think about it, there’s virtually no element of officiating in any of these four major sports that AI couldn’t do as well or better than humans. Go ahead and keep the refs at lower levels all the way through college, where players are learning how to be good enough at their respective crafts to paid money for it. But where the big money resides and the biggest numbers of fans are involved, get officiating out of the hands of inconsistent humans.

About all this would take is an infusion of money to make it happen – and quite possibly less money than would be required to pay full-time officials, and definitely less money than would be required to create a national infrastructure for growing officiating ability in concert with athletic ability. The only reason not to begin this sea change is fear of AI. But if that is something to fear, then who cares? In that world, AI will eventually exterminate us all, but at least we will have had some better sports for a while.

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