Don’t Think Twice…It’s Alright

Every day is a school day and until very recently, I had no idea that every NFL football came with a Zebra Technologies microchip. These microchips measure acceleration and rotation but by using triangulation between the various monitoring devices that track the chip in the ball you can also plot its position to within 10 inches. That’s the guaranteed accuracy, 10 inches and I’ll come back to that.

I read that our QB1 has suggested that the microchips in footballs should be used to improve refereeing by giving an accurate decision on where the ball has ended up on every down. When it comes to throwing the ball, picking the right option, seeing the opportunity for a surprisingly effective run, or sending the defence one way and the ball the other I am always going to defer to the genius in the 15 shirt.

When it comes to the use of technology in assisting or over-ruling the on-field human referees, I bring three decades of general geekery and the UK experience of assistive technology in the local sports of soccer, cricket, and rugby.

I think the most successful and accepted applications have been in cricket. For those of you unfamiliar with this original and best version of baseball, the game is played over up to 5 days, there are only two innings at most per team, the batsmen wear huge leg pads which they can or sometimes cannot use to deflect the ball away. The ball is harder, heavier, and thrown at up to 100mph but also sometimes deliberately thrown much more slowly with spin. The bats are bigger and the bowlers can bounce the ball off the pitch on the way to the batsman.

It is of course way more complicated than that, but technology has found its way into some of the umpiring decisions. The Umpire Decision Review System is a battery of surveillance technologies that combine to prove whether or not a batsman should be given out. It uses TV slow-motion replays, Hawk-Eye, which tracks the cricket ball trajectory and predicts where the ball would have gone if it hadn’t hit the batsman.

Snicko uses directional microphones to detect the tiny sound of the ball clipping bats or pads. Hot Spot uses infrared imaging to decide if the ball has hit a bat or pad by detecting the slight resultant increase in temperature.

It hasn’t been an unqualified success and in some of the shorter forms of the game such as 20:20 where each bowling team only gets 120 throws, it has been criticized for unnecessarily holding up progress of the game. The consensus is that if you’re spectating a game played out over days, waiting 5 minutes for the off-field review isn’t such a great hardship and may add to the entertainment.

Next we have Rugby Union. A quick pen picture would be fifteen players on each team, same shaped ball as football, only backwards passes allowed, lots of tackles, no line of scrimmage, no downs, no hard helmets, no bulky pads. It looks a bit like football but I would say that it is much much faster, harder hitting and technical at every position.

Both teams are composed almost exclusively of Fullback, Linebacker, and Edge Rusher types. There is a position called Hooker and another referred to simply as Number 8, there is a Fullback but they’re the last line of defense, really. There is the charmingly named hospital pass which is what happens when the ball arrives in your hands from a pass together with a rapidly converging tackler and you wake up in a concussion protocol. If you want to see what the ensuing carnage looks like, this is 4 minutes of the hardest hits from just one season.

Rugby has the Television Match Official (TMO). In simple terms, the on-field referee can ask an off-field official to review all the TV camera footage if a decision is in doubt. This can take a while and unless there is a killer camera angle, it is not uncommon for the off-field official to come back with a variant of “Sorry mate, nothing here to help you.”

If the decision is around a potential score, this leaves teams and spectators on tenterhooks. The TMO doesn’t get to make in-game calls or decisions though, they are only called into action when the on-field referee wants to be 100% sure of a decision. The TMO system has been relatively well-received in rugby but it is simple and limited in scope.

I’m not going to describe soccer to you. I think that you all know what it is. Firstly in soccer, we have the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) which has been somewhat unpopular and somewhat controversial since it came into top-flight soccer in the early years of the century. It has been branded “a shambles” by Alan Shearer who has a standing in UK Soccer very roughly equivalent of Troy Aikman, enjoying a very solid broadcast career after a great career as a player.

The Video Assistant Referee has access to video feeds of the game from many angles and can review decisions on goals, penalties, sending offs and mistaken identity where the referee cautions or sends off the wrong player. Last season VAR was involved in the decisions around 128 goals in the Premier League. Polling suggests that around half of all UK soccer fans believe that VAR has made the game worse.

The other technology assist in soccer is goal-line technology where a host of cameras in the stadium follow the ball around the pitch and can determine whether or not it has made it over the goal line into the net to register a goal. This sounds great but famously in a 2020 match between Aston Villa and Sheffield United, the Villa goalkeeper carried the ball over the line into his own net and the system missed it. No goal was given. The failure was blamed on unusual camera occlusion.

I find myself going back to the start now. Is bringing ball location into football worth doing or even possible? The experience of referee assisting technology in the UK shows that if it is a long game with frequent lengthy breaks in play like cricket, nobody minds a delay whilst the machines take a look at the decision.

Where the technology is fairly basic and largely in the background as in rugby, again nobody much minds having the technology help the referee with the hardest and most marginal decisions. In soccer, however, the use of more and more technology to detect technical infringements and overturn referee decisions has become increasingly unpopular with fans, players, and coaches.

Like Jose Mourinho, the doyen of UK soccer coaches, said last season “The referee should be the man on the pitch. We are going into a direction which is really bad for a game that is a beautiful game.” I would echo this for football. The chip in the ball is only accurate to 10 inches and in a game of inches, who wants to base a fourth-down decision on that? Not me.