Recent events in major league baseball – and now in the World Cup – have ignited an always simmering debate in professional sports about the appropriate use of replay technology. While the rationale for the use of slow motion replay can seem comically obvious when there is a particularly obscene call made that can be said to have had a bearing on the outcome of a match, passion and emotion can sometimes blind us from the larger conversation that is actually taking place. What is being proposed is the replacement of (imperfect) human judgment with that of the (perfect) machine. And not simply that, it is a proposal to further distance the sport, be it baseball or soccer, in its professional form from the everyday, from its role as a mirror to the human experience itself. The debate cuts right to the heart of the role of sport, professional or otherwise, in our culture.
Those who would have us replace human umpires, referees, or the sundry other judges that mediate our physical competitions with machines are, in essence, asserting that what is important in sport is that the correct call is always made, that the outcome is all important. Forgetting that at its heart, sport is nothing more – nor indeed, anything less – than a human story in which chance, luck, and indeed fate, play as important a role as effort. In essence, those who would have machines help regulate sport are arguing for the modern notions that humans, and our activities, are separate from the seeming chaos of the world; that we can actually control the conditions of our lives. (Why else did we build those monstrous domed stadiums during the 70s and 80s?)
I think it imperative we remember that professional sport is a great number of things, but it is fundamentally a contest fought and determined by humans, in an imperfect realm where not all is actually equal. There is home field advantage, free agency, and above all, umpires – gods, unseen and fickle forces overseeing and judging. Replay is an attempt to kill those gods!
Sport is a magical mixture of physical and mental skills, of creativity and imagination, of human potential that at its finest becomes art.
Inasmuch, it participates in the larger human narrative. It is a form of storytelling, re-enacting great battles, between good and evil, light and dark. Sport is the ritualisation and taming of our very real violence, the confronting of our place on earth and indeed within the universe. It is theatre in real time, and tells of victory and glory just as much as it tells of loss and failure. More importantly, however, the story is not just of physical prowess but of mental strength, determination, and the human heart – of not surrendering to the chaos, but of accepting and overcoming it.
“Another game won by a referee’s decision” wrote a friend in lament of England’s no-goal against the Germans. Not quite. Rarely are games decided by referees. England faced a challenge, a hurdle and withered. Germany then demolished them scoring four goals to England’s one (two really, but all the same, it is less than four!)
The joy of the game, like life, is in the drama; in the unpredictability of it all.
There are heroes and villains, winners and losers. There are always winners and losers. And while the certainty of these endings is appealing, it’s also disconcerting. After what appeared to have been a missed or ‘phantom’ call and subsequent cancelling of a potentially game-winning goal by the USA in a recent World Cup game, the American coach lamented the injustice, and I must paraphrase, sorry, ‘our guys put a lot of sweat and effort into this game and they expect a fair result [emphasis added]’.
But since when did ‘fair’ have anything to do with anything?
Sport tells very human stories. They are unpredictable, often random and unjust.
The story is in the humanity, in the frailty of the ego, the concentration of the mind, the strength and skill of the body, and the collapse. Defeat always reminds us that even that everyone can fail. Upsets remind us that anything is possible. And blown calls – oh the bane of the serious sports fan – they force us to remember what Machiavelli cautioned his Prince against, the ‘destructive unpredictability of life’. Fortuna, is always lurking. We can take nothing for granted.
But attempting to remove the unpredictability, the randomness from the game is an extension our own desires to control, not to be subject to the whims and whimsy of Lady Luck. But when we control all the conditions, all the variables, the end becomes predictable and so sport ceases to be relevant as a story anymore. It loses its very humanness.
Chess is an excellent example. A fantastic game, but linear. It is regulated very strictly by a set of rules that contain the game, give it shape beyond which it cannot go. This in no way resembles the human experience, or does but in such a limited and one-dimensional way that it is made meaningless as a humanof ourselves. It is strictly rational, no unexpected gust of wind, no soft ice, soggy field, or low-setting sun, no human error...in other words, no god. It has none of the unpredictability of even our day-to-day lives. No gray. Which makes them rather uninteresting as stories. Not much to learn.
Professional sports are perfectly human constructions, products of complex societies and cultures, but they are by no means fair. Contrary to what one commenter to an article on the subject of baseball suggests:
Not only should umpires have replay, but the balls and strikes should be called by the computer. The announcers show the strike zone box, they show the calls the Ump made right, as well the those they missed, why not just use the box/computer for all the calls? We have the technology to make the game more fair, more accurate and unbiased, let's use it. And not just for a limited number of calls, but all close or questionable calls. It would only be fair!”
Again, we retreat to pleas for fairness and justice.
We should demand a degree of evenness no doubt, but what exactly does replay offer us? What exactly is the point of “always getting the call correct”? Does this add to the sport, and it might, or is it more that we perhaps take it far too seriously? Admittedly, in the recent perfect games fiasco, a call was clearly blown at great expense...but it is here that I hesitate. At the expense of what? The point of the game is to score more runs than your opponent, and the Tigers, did exactly that. And they won the game.
The pitcher, to his profound credit, had the character to recalibrate his emotions as he saw his place in baseball’s record books evaporate, and proceeded to get out the final batter of the game and earn a victory. The offending umpire, again to the great credit of all of those actually involved in the misplay, would after the game recant his call, apologise sincerely, and in return receive a hug from Galaraga.
What, I ask you is important in this ordeal? What should we take away with us? That a young man had the character and courage to stare fortuna square in the eyes, to watch his immortality evaporate, to accept that there were just some things that he could not control, and move on? Or, that a bad call was made at a very important moment in an unimportant game?
That the “right” call wasn’t made?
Sports offer us the opportunity to learn how to accept defeat with dignity and respect victory as a merely fleeting condition always subject to chance and the mysterious hand of god.
So what does the alteration of the fabric of this century-old game, the replacement of human judgement with that of a computer do to the spirit of the game? Is the umpire not part of the game of baseball? The referee an actor in the theatre of the hockey arena? Who do we jeer, ridicule, and curse if not the reviled referee? Oh sure, the players remain, but do we not actually take away part of the diversity of the ecosystem, a plot in the larger narrative, and does this make the story better?
I would argue that no, it does not. But this may depend on exactly what you are looking from your sports.
Sports give us a chance to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Above all, they are about community. They bring strangers together in joyful embraces and in lamentful scorn. We rise and fall with our team’s wins and losses as they progress through the season. We rejoice and suffer as individuals and as towns, cities, nations.
The value of sport is in its story. But it is the narrative and camaraderie that is important, not necessarily the end result.