In Sports, Discretion Is The Enemy Of Integrity

The Denver Bronchos last second win over the San Diego Chargers last weekend was one more game decided by a controversial pass interference call. That rule, with which the NFL has been tinkering and which is now complicated by a video review system, is becoming increasingly controversial this season. Wrote Times football columnist Ben Shpiegel,

[E]very week across the N.F.L.’s vast empire one player interferes with another before a pass arrives — and goes unpunished for it. In these moments, when yellow penalty flags remain lodged in officials’ pockets, aggrieved coaches weigh emotion against reason: Do they challenge the non-call, hoping that by sheer luck it will be overruled by the new video review mechanism? Or do they stew on the sideline, red flag pocketed, and resign themselves to the unlikelihood of a reversal?…After 12 weeks of wasted challenges and lost timeouts, of inconsistency and obfuscation, the league’s erratic application of the defined standard for overturning an on-field decision — “clear and obvious visual evidence” — has made the football masses yearn for simpler times, such as when no one knew what constituted a catch. Over all, through Week 12, 15 of 77 reviews of pass interference were overturned, though nearly half of those reversals — seven of 15 — were initiated by the officials in the replay booth, who are responsible for challenges in the last two minutes of the half… The questionable calls have dented confidence in a mechanism ostensibly intended to restore it after a mess of an N.F.C. championship game, in which Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman, without consequence, walloped Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis before the ball arrived.

The dilemma isn’t restricted to football. In any sport where an official’s judgment plays a big role in game results, the interjection of technology and the universal broadcast of games has created an integrity crisis. Before multiple camera angles and the  possibility of replays, umpires and referees could blow a crucial call and nobody would be the wiser, or at least would be able to prove that the game was decided by a non-player’s botch. Now, bad calls are there, on a big screen, then the internet, for all to see over and over. The Luddite argument that missed calls are the “human element” and “part of the game” made sense when there was nothing to be done about it. It is ridiculous now.

Ironically, the sport where referee discretion has the greatest effect is also the one where missed calls are the hardest to address. That would be basketball, where potential fouls are going on constantly, and the only way all of them could be fairly called would be to have the mutant equivalents of the mythological 100-eyed shepherd Argus bred specifically to referee basketball games.

You know, this guy:

Plus basketball has the structural problem that if every foul were called, each game would last 7 hours and have the excitement of drying paint. This is one of the reasons I don’t follow basketball: the fouls (and traveling violations) that the refs choose not to call decide too many games, if not all of them.

Baseball, to its credit, had gradually eliminated most discretionary calls from the control of its umpires, with one glaring, infuriating exception: balls and strikes. As a baseball fan, I hope this one will also be addressed by technology, so I don’t have to hear anymore rationalizations about how Umpire A has a high strike zone and Umpire B has a wide strike zone. There is only one strike zone, and pitchers, batters and fans should be able to rely on it being applied consistently in every game, on every pitch.

That’s an easy fix, compared to pass interference in football, a major penalty that may or may not be called based on the unique placement of arms, legs, torsos, the ball, and assumptions about what would have happened without it. Good luck to pro football as it tries to minimize eccentric interpretations.

Well, good luck until the deadly game is banned, anyway.


6 thoughts on “In Sports, Discretion Is The Enemy Of Integrity

  1. Not a sports aficionado, but any reference to Argus Panoptes wins points with me. Another victim of the premier dysfunctional couple of Olympus.

  2. I’ve always viewed basketball as the least ethical of the major sports because of the ignoring of the violation for advantage by fouling to stop the clock at the end of the game that is standard fare in any game save a blowout. Baseball is probably the best to evolve and to not allow the breaking of rules to turn to the advantage of the rule violator. I have no idea when this nonsense started, but I would presume sometime around 1898 or thereabouts as the rules formalized.

    This isn’t even a hard one to address. There are several simple rule modifications that would terminate the advantage: 10 second run-off if the behind team fouls in the last two minutes, 2 shots plus the ball back instead of a turnover, or other similar ideas. Instead of keeping the game honest, it’s been ignored for 120 years now.

  3. The Luddite argument that missed calls are the “human element” and “part of the game” made sense when there was nothing to be done about it. It is ridiculous now.

    The parallel of the Luddite argument would be to say that any race type event should use a photo finish and / or electronic timing. Imagine the argument: “Yeah, I know sometimes the second place running gets the trophy, but the place jude’s judgment is just part of the sport.” Sounds totally idiotic, doesn’t it? Once electronic ball / strike calls are in place, those arguments for the old system would sound every bit as stupid.

    In addition to baseball’s ball / strike calls, football faces the ball spotting judgement that can often be wrong. The most absurd is when they bring the sticks and chain out to measure. Let’s set the 1st down marker from the side of the field, very subjectively guess “oh, the ball is about here, let my set it down” and then carefully bring the sticks and chains out to accurately measure whether the line judge’s guess is on one side of the line to gain or not. Video replay helps, but often misses the instances where the ball isn’t visible to a camera. Technology to track the exact position of the ball tied to the game clock would help this factor.

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