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Technology and Justice

It happens every few months, like the change of seasons or the media’s en masse attempt to wring some fresh significance out of Sarah Palin: a referee misses an important call, a fan base is outraged, a UEFA executive looks on in silence, and lights flare to life over the metaphoric phone banks at the metaphoric talk-radio stations that, in the imaginations of writers, suggest a groundswell of popular interest. One minute Thierry Henry practices saxophone fingerings on the ball and stops Ireland from reaching the World Cup, the next Didier Drogba whaps like a volleyball player and helps secure the title for Chelsea (twice, actually, if you remember Man City 2006). Those wronged appeal for justice; those with the power to dispense justice are watching Rugrats DVDs in a hyperbaric chamber 500 stories below FIFA headquarters in Zurich, leaving their confused subordinates to issue prissy, bafflingly aggrieved statements from behind what I always imagine to be a resolutely locked bathroom door.

This is a state of things that we all find somewhat unsatisfying, which is why, every time it happens, the calls grow louder for some form of technological refereeing to supplement the human type. When the Enterprise sailed into the wrong kind of neutron cloud, there was nothing for it but to hand the ship over to Data, and the same kind of thinking leads us to conclude that when human refereeing fails, computers—the Data of our time—should intervene. A circuit board won’t fear being surrounded by Manchester United, which, come to think of it, is somewhat ambiguous as a point in favor of the circuit board’s intelligence. In any case, machines would be unbiased, consistent (even if consistency is often at odds with common sense), precise, and acute. And if fairness is the most important consideration in sports, why on earth would you keep those qualities out?

If fairness is the most important consideration in sports, there’s no reason, which is why the usual objections to the robot-officials argument are so lame and unpersuasive. Human error is “part of the game”? “Players make mistakes and officials make mistakes”? Thank you for the unqualified assertion and the false analogy, Derwent. Don’t let the aching obviousness of my rebuttals detain you on your way out.

More to the point, however: Is fairness really the most important consideration in sports? Here’s a thought experiment. Say we could guarantee that every match would be impeccably judged—every dive would be spotted, every penalty would be earned, every card would be correct—with the one condition that any non-obvious decision would require play to be halted till the following day. Matches would take several days to complete (no major change for Bolton fans, he said comically) but each discrete passage of play would be entirely consonant with the Vision of the Laws of the Game.

Would you take that deal? Obviously not, because while it would perfect the value of good refereeing, it would have the minor unintended consequence of utterly ruining the game. Most directly, assuming you don’t currently start for Barcelona, it would make the experience of watching a match a catastrophic chore. You’d nestle into the couch with your bottle of Calvados and your enthusiasm, only for play to be suspended in the third minute while the slow-drip gods of justice worked out whom to give a throw-in at midfield. If you actually went to the stadium, you’d either live in an impromptu tent city until the fixture had concluded, at which point you would die of meat-pie poisoning, or you would go home whenever play halted, in which case you would traverse the stadium steps so often that you’d soon require new knees. And you would gladly accept a few bad calls in exchange for a match you could watch in one go.

Thus it seems reasonable to conclude that there is something else worth valuing in football beyond virginal blind justice. The game should be as fair as possible, but it should also preserve the qualities that make it worth watching in the first place. It should be, you know, fun. Most of the time those qualities aren’t at odds, but when they are, fun has to win out. It’s only because the game is fun that we care whether it’s fair, and so forth.

I want to talk about a fear that exists in the heart of every American soccer fan. I don’t think British fans feel it, though I could be wrong: expectations are too different, grievances are too different. To introduce you what I believe to be this distinctly American fear, I want to utilize a video by Dutch artist Helmut Smits that I found on The Offside the other day.

Watch the video

This video makes real what many people had previously only imagined as part of a dystopic middle-term future (Sepp Blatter as a head suspended in a jar, that sort of thing): the entire football pitch replaced with a TV commercial reel, with tiny players dashing about on the cheeks of giant skin-care models and suavely zooming SUVs. It’s frightening because its suggestion of profiteering run amok feels so true to the aims of the responsible stewards and high-minded altruists at your neighborhood league office. Still, some of the “this is what they’ll do next!” commentary the video has provoked slightly, I submit, misses the point. They would love to show you more commercials. But their best bet to do so is not to turn the pitch into a giant green screen. Their best bet is to introduce scenarios into the game in which they can stop the clock.

That the clock might one day become stoppable in soccer is the secret dread of every American soccer fan. We don’t talk about it much, we try to ignore it, but we have certainly all confronted it in a gruesome midnight hour. You see, we have no native tradition of games that run without stoppages. Our games involve timeouts, constant substitutions, rotation changes, “resets,” and so on. When the ball goes out of bounds, the clock stops. When the coach needs to talk things over with the players, the clock stops. Almost every one of these clock stoppages is accompanied by a cut to commercial. At some point, in most of our popular sports, the powers that be started adding in periodic clock stoppages for no reason other than to cut to commercial. Over the past few weeks, during the NCAA basketball tournament, I watched the same 15 commercials so often that by the end of the event I had most of them memorized.

I’d guess I’m like most American soccer fans in that, before I discovered the game, I never quite realized how disruptive and annoying the constant commercial breaks were. Then I started watching soccer, learned what it was to concentrate on the match and only the match for 45 minutes at a stretch, and felt like I’d developed a new sense. As much as I love many American sports—and some international sports that act the same way—the timescale of soccer, where there’s only one clock stoppage and only one cut away from the action during the entire game, generally feels like the timescale of paradise.

Thus, my fear of clock stoppages is a fear born of understanding, of knowing in my bones that they will be used as an excuse to pulverize me with Buffalo Wild Wings commercials and (hands up, FSC) bewildering Proactiv ads. And thus my opposition to practically the entire idea of technology-assisted refereeing in football. It all starts innocently enough—a sensor that judges whether the ball has crossed the line, no stoppages necessary—but that softens us up for the assertion that “steps need to be taken,” and before long it becomes impossible to justify not having an instant-replay provision in which the referee looks into a touchline monitor to “get the call exactly right.” (“That’s the important thing, Jim,” the commentators always say over here: “getting it right.”) The instant-replay system is slow, it’s cumbersome—ask NFL fans who have endured the arcane and unwieldy “challenge” system—and it can’t be made to work with a game clock that can’t be paused. Somebody suggests adding a pause button to the game clock, because fairness is the most important thing! And before you know it there’s a mandated 36th-minute “field timeout” to cut to Robbie Williams endorsing Fishwick Minibus.

This must not happen. The game may not be flawlessly fair right now, but it’s really, really fun. And its pace and unsusceptibility to intrusive advertising are indispensable parts of that. Keeping those qualities in place should be at or near the top of our priority list. Better a few missed handballs than one interruption for a needless “adorable Google search narrative” advert.

Maybe this seems like a paranoid fantasy to you. Maybe you think “they wouldn’t do that.” And to you I say: really? Really? Think of everything else they’ve done or tried to do: the 39th Game, spiraling ticket costs, leveraged takeovers, Man City motorbikes in Indonesia, and so ons in terrible ranks. You really don’t believe they’d interrupt a match for a dollar from AIG? How much are you willing to risk in the name of slightly better refereeing?

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Technology and Justice

by Brian Phillips · April 15, 2010

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