How The Human Factor Foils Technology And Ethics: A Case Study (UPDATED)

Baseball finally installed a replay review system to address umpire calls that were shown by TV slow-mo to be clearly wrong. For all the complaining about the system, it was the only ethical choice. Mistaken calls were changing the results of games, and because of technology, this was now obvious to all. Only technology could solve the problem.

Unfortunately, however, human beings still control the technology. Bias, emotion and other impediments to ethics will still prevail more often than we like to think. Yesterday’s Red Sox Yankee game provided a classic example.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi challenged a safe call on the Sox’s Andrew Benintendi when he slid into second base for an apparent double. The video showed that the second base umpire had missed the play. Upon review—the umpires put on headsets to get the verdict from a New York studio where another set of umpires check the video from multiple angles—the call was reversed, and Benintendi was out.

In the same inning, Red Sox manager John Farrell challenged an inning-ending double play. The review showed Red Sox baserunner Mookie Betts safely reached second before the throw, allowing the Red Sox to score the game’s first run. For the second time in a single inning, Greg Gibson,  the second base umpire, had his call reversed. I have never seen this happen before. For an umpire, this is not just embarrassing, it is professionally humiliating.

Later, in the seventh inning, the same star-crossed (cross-eyed?) umpire  called Yankee Greg Bird  out as he was doubled off second base after a lineout. The video this time was more conclusive than the first challenge: the umpire blew it, again. Bird had beat the throw.

While the challenge was being reviewed, the Red Sox broadcasters, who had concluded that Bir should have been called safe at second, were talking about the rarity of the same umpire being reversed three times in a single game. Sox color man Dennis Eckersley wondered aloud if professional courtesy and loyalty might affect the review.  What he was really asking was whether the umpires in New York would allow a colleague to be exposed to the disgrace of being reversed three times in one game. This wouldn’t only  make him look bad, after all. It would make umpires look bad. Three strikes and you’re out, after all.

Sure enough, the decision from New York was that the call at second was correct. Bird was out, even though the video showed he was safe.

The umpires have plausible deniability here: this was hardly the first time that a replay review seemed at odds with a video. Nonetheless, it was a sobering display. By all appearances, the umpires distorted the game to protect one of their own who was having a terrible night. They were employing the Golden Rule in the kind of setting where the Golden Rule works against an ethical result, not for it.

Fortunately for the umpires, allowing the third blown call at second was allowed to stand had no effect on the game’s outcome, but that is just moral luck. The umpires made a very clear statement. They regard loyalty to colleagues as more important than their profession, the game, their fans, or public trust. They, or at least the umpires involved, cannot be trusted to put aside their biases and conflicts when their duties demand it. Technology may be unbiased, but the humans using it are not. Professionals are not always professional when a colleague’s fate is involved.

Humanity is the ultimate conflict.

12 thoughts on “How The Human Factor Foils Technology And Ethics: A Case Study (UPDATED)

  1. Now that a challenge system has been implemented, I wonder if we won’t see more of that. Different sport, different country, but it had gotten to the point in the CFL where if a ref even thought that something untoward may have happened, they’d throw a flag down, expecting the coach to challenge it for review… I mean, from an accuracy point of view, it may have been the right thing to do, but some of those reviews took more than 10 minutes, and game lengths were becoming burdensome. This year, they reduced the number of challenges that coaches could make, and I thought there was going to be riots the first time a ref made a ridiculously cautionary call… But so far, it hasn’t come up… Because the calling has actually gotten more reasonable. Go figure.

    (Go Bombers Go)

  2. 2+2 never equals 5, even if you say so three times. Out is out. The possible tendency of the review umpires to accept a bad call so as not to embarrass a colleague, and by extension their profession, has the end result of doing just that – with a spotlight on it.

  3. Infuriating, yes. But protection of a colleague umpire is one thing, and at the moment I don’t think there’s much you can do about it except complain. The extreme slo-mo fans can see only proves the unethical behavior of the NY “checkers,” and worsens the already horrible reputation of umpires, especially home plate umpires.

    Bad calls of balls and strikes at the plate is completely different, and now that we can see — right on the TV screen — exactly where a pitched ball goes vis-a-vis the plate and the strike zone, we also see how very, very often home plate umpires are wrong. Yes, pitches are coming in at 100 miles per hour now, but still, there is a technology that can accurately call a ball or a strike at any speed. I want to see computer calls of balls and strikes within the next two years. The evidence of the home plate umpire’s mistakes are now there for all to see, and frankly, if they had any sense at all, they’d welcome a computer making those calls for them. Especially since they can’t seem to get calls at the bases right either.

  4. Easy fix: Don’t have the people making those remote replay calls be umpires. Then, there’d be no concerns about “professional courtesy.”

    You don’t need to be an umpire to work a replay booth. Their job description is literally to look at slow-motion video from several angles and see what happened. Just in case, maybe have one umpire in the room, in case the play being challenged involves rules interpretation.

    Most importantly, the review team should never know what the call on the field was; if so, there wouldn’t be any bias at all. It would simply be a matter of “look at the screen and tell me was he safe or out.”

    • You might make some progress on getting non-umpires in the replay booth, but I’d say not on your second point. Replays in all four major professional sports in the U.S. are definitely significantly weighted towards the on the field call. Generally the standard has been set at ‘unequivocal’ evidence that the call on the field was incorrect. This leads to three classes of review results: Original call confirmed, original call reversed, and original call stands (not enough evidence to overturn it).

      Alternatively, MLB could take the better course and improve the game by eliminating replays in these sort of situations. 🙂

      • As to the last statement, you can’t be serious. I’ve seen easily 10 game results changed by over-turned calls following a single team’s games. That’s a whole season. Neither fan, nor journalists, nor players can tolerate unjustly losing when a video clearly shows a blown call. The argument is “let the obvious and correctable mistake stand because we didn’t used to know it was a mistake.”

        In the play that was not reversed, the evidence was unequivocal, unless one was determined not to embarrass the umpire.

        • Diego, I’m not sure what your point is. All I’m saying is, the replay crew shouldn’t know whether the call was safe or out/fair or foul (or whatever). They should simply see the play and decide the outcome on its own merits, rather than needing “unequivocal evidence” to overturn it. Why not just start from a clean slate? Tell the crew: “Here’s the play, presented in slow-motion from several camera angles; is he safe or out/fair or foul (or whatever)?” If the replay crew simply can’t decide because the play is too close, then the call on the field stands. I suspect that would be the distinct minority of plays, though. And that kind of system would completely eliminate the bias.

          • Tippy, when they are looking at the play how do you keep them from seeing what the umpire called? The umpires have to be up close and personal a lot of the time so that they can clearly see the play. Or, maybe you can if you can stop the tape quickly enough, since the umpire’s signal isn’t generally instantaneous.

        • I am serious Jack, even though I have zero expectation of it happening. I am certain that I have seen at least as many calls where replay has resulted in the wrong outcome of a play.

          If I build an atomic clock I expect it to have inhuman precision and accuracy. If I watch a game played by humans I don’t, and I do not appreciate us using technology that tries to do so.

          In the specific play you’re talking about, under the rules we currently play with, I agree that the call should have been reversed.

          • Perhaps we lose more than we gain by having the ultimate truth, DG?

            I can see that. Much of what is learned in sports is perseverance and character development, in that life is sometimes not fair and you have to learn to cope with the consequences. Learning the lesson in sports is a ‘safe space’ in that the lessons can be learned such that they do not impact your life, just the results of the game.

            Having machine precision undercuts that lesson: it teaches that life ought to be fair, which is a disservice to all.

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