When it comes to technology in sport, we should be careful what we wish for.
Sat here with an iPhone and Kindle and iPad and Macbook and satellite TV and SatNav and Sky+, it seems a bit churlish to complain about the encroachment of technology. But technology works when it improves something, when it aids and assists us. I’m just not sure that technology works when it changes the fundamentals of what it is applied to. Technology in sport threatens to change what it is we love about it.
Sport should evolve – if we can make it better, great. In football, changes to the offside rule, backpass rule, have generally improved the experience for fans. And technology can be helpful – lightweight modern cricket helmets so that doosra-subtlety isn’t entirely shoved aside for bouncers and intimidation, for example. In some sports, though, there is also a need for constant technology rebalancing – tennis racquets versus tennis balls; one speeds it up, one slows it down. Similarly in golf with grooves and dimples. But in general, technology can be a force for an improved all-round experience.
And the advances of TV coverage cannot be a bad thing either – replays are now mandatory (try watching a game, any game, without replays now (as you can in territories where coverage is cheaper/less enlightened) and you feel robbed or cheated) as are multiple angles. Hawkeye and Snicko are great fun in cricket (though hockey remains immune, witness the reaction to the FoxTrax glowing puck). But there is a difference in a technological, or scientific, analysis of a game, or the coverage of a game, versus applying that technology to fundamentally change the behavior of the game as it is played.
Tennis has reviews, and the pause and video challenges have very quickly (and surprisingly so) become part of the sport’s experience. But then so was McEnroe screaming at a fallible umpire or line judge (and thank goodness Serena is still around for some good, honest berating). The fact is though, even in a limited way, the game has fundamentally changed – though admittedly it was slightly ludicrous to have a 55-yr old local tennis club official peering at a line of chalk in the midday sun and expecting good results.
In cricket, in a more cack-handed way, the review system has changed what is given out or not, especially for spinners, to the benefit of Swannie and others. The ability to review LBW has fundamentally changed the way a batsman has to play – front-foot padding is no longer a way out (and some would say this is a good thing). Therefore, spare a thought for KP and the like who have a ‘weakness against spin’ – of course they do if the essence of how to actually play has been changed by Hawkeye and the DRS. And in general terms it has changed the role of the umpire – he no longer is the ultimate authority, and his decision-making is colored by having one eye on that big video screen which may expose his fallibility.
Just to pause to reflect, though. Do we actually want sport to be more accurate? Is this what we really want? Isn’t the messiness, the very human-ness, with all the foibles, mistakes, accidents and screw-ups that constitute a life properly reflected, that actually formulate a big proportion of its attractiveness? And not inconsequentially, what the heck would we talk about in the pub afterwards?
Football has been struggling with this in a small way, with goal-line technology. Some of the arguments in favour either play the ‘are you a luddite?’ card (not even worth discussing) or revolve around the money involved as a result of poor decisions. Sorry, I am of the general opinion that money is not a great starting point for any argument, sport in particular. QPR (the latest victim of the ball going over the line but a goal not being given) will not go down because of that decision (and hence lose millions) – its not even sure whether they would have still won or lost that particular game. No, they will go down after 3420-odd minutes of (shoddy) football.
The incident pictured above (Lampard’s shot against Germany in the last World Cup) was admittedly when England had a chance to equalize, but the game went away from England pretty quickly and who would really bet against England having lost 4-2, if not 4-1?
But the key point is that to pause to reflect on technology and whether it will improve the game, is not the same as advocating mistakes. It is acknowledging that sport is a game played, run, and watched, by humans, and mistakes will happen both in terms of player performance and officiating. Recent stats that football referees get 92% of decisions correct, and a staggering 99.3% by assistant referees, especially given the increased speed of the game, is more than acceptable. Arguably the professionalizing of sports officials has had a far bigger impact on sports than any technology really could. And those 8% of incorrect decisions probably equate to about 50% of the interest in those games.
It also is a strange argument that argues for partial accuracy – if we really want to get closer to 100% accuracy, shouldn’t we be reviewing the majority of key decisions – red cards, penalties, etc.? Are we okay with human mistakes in these, but not in ones that are ‘easier’ to manage? Not sure what the logic is there. Also while the ‘over the line’ incidents have resonance (probably stemming from 1966), when Sky was putting together a short compilation, we had to go back to hoary old classics like Roy Carroll from 2005, and then the Crystal Palace/Clive Allen stanchion ‘goal’ from 1980…
It is perfectly understandable for the aggrieved in these very rare situations to clamor for these kind of technological improvements, but we do need to be careful what we are actually wishing for. Sport is glorious because of the human triumphs and tragedies. And it is also never-endingly fascinating because of the human decisions made within it – the golfer who goes for the green on the 18th and ends up the water, the defender’s back pass intercepted, the missed sweepshot, the double-fault, and, yes, the umpire or referee who makes a brave, but heartbreakingly incorrect, decision.
Anything that takes us away from this, is surely wrong.