There are some people who are enamored with the thought of the human element in the officiating of sports, one of those factors of randomness that exist in many games. While the rules of the game presuppose a desire to create a consistent and level playing field for both teams in a game and for teams between games, there is considerable randomness that exists between how different referees and umpires adjudicate the game and, sadly, sometimes a difference in how rules are enforced between two teams. As someone who does a fair bit of refereeing myself in the sport of volleyball, I have to say that I am by no means hostile to referees in the way that some sports viewers are, but rather I find it interesting the way that discussions about technology are framed in terms of whether they are friendly or hostile to the human element that exists in trying to determine if something is foul or fair, if someone’s hand touched a ball, or something else of that nature. As someone who has frequently found myself making those decisions with my own eyes, I speak with considerable empathy about the difficulties that umpires have in making those calls fairly.
A great many sports have sought to leverage gains in technology in order to provide the means to assist referees and umpires in difficult decisions. Some of these technologies provide a chance to check decisions through the means of appeals and challenges from one team or another. Sometimes, as in soccer, they sometimes check plays without the need for a formal appeals process to see if a handball occurred or if a goal scored was offside. Speaking as someone who is both a fan of sports as well as someone who likes to play and officiate in them, I love the development of technologies that allow us to better know reality rather than have to depend on unreliable and potentially corrupt human actors. The enforcement of rules can be incredibly inconsistent and it is greatly helpful if players know exactly how a game is going to be called and find it to be consistent between games and between teams, as that consistency in enforcement brings out the best behavior among players.
There is some fear that the proliferation of video assistance for referees and umpires is going to remove human beings from such games altogether. And it is true, it must be admitted, that advances in technology do allow video to see far more than people can see through multiple camera locations and angles that can see when someone turns in baseball to run to second base, thus allowing a runner to be tagged out in baseball. With my own eyes I have seen quite a few handball calls in soccer be called by VAR because they happened to be missed by the referee, one of them leading to a red card because a hand deliberately moved the ball by the last defender in front of a team’s goal area. It must be admitted, though, that there will always be a human element in such matters. One can only review so many plays, and so which plays are selected to review will still depend on the choice of people, be they players or coaches looking to challenge a mistaken call, or someone in a booth who looks at all plays that are crucial to make sure that they hold up. To be sure, not everyone agrees, but in our opinions about such matters the human element will always be in play as well. We cannot expect otherwise.