Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Problem with Sports Officiating

A Detroit pitcher is denied a perfect game by a bad call on the last out. A day later, in the first game of the NBA Finals, almost every possession for each team results in a foul call, a week after Dwight Howard is allowed to elbow opposing players at will. Stories of bad officiating resound almost daily, fostered in part by advances in technology that give TV viewers a more accurate grasp of the on-field action than those actually participating in it. Maybe we need to change our paradigm regarding professional sports officiating.

Let’s face it, professional athletes are millionaires, some making upwards of $20 million per year. At the same time, billions are bet on these events, yet we stick with the decades-old concept of the often fallible, occasionally corrupt referee, judge, or umpire having the final say on important calls or non-calls.

I know from judging karate tournaments that it’s not always easy to make the right call, even when you are trying your hardest and there is little or no money at stake. So why, when there is so much on the line, do we leave the decisions up to often-underpaid officials when the rest of us can see, on instant replay, every time they make a mistake?

The NFL took the first step with replay challenges, and the other sports have adopted replay on a limited basis, but it is still up to the officials on the field or court to decide when and how to use it, often slowing the game to a crawl while they do so. We need a 21st century solution based on current sensibilities and technology.

Why not have a replay booth above the action or even in a central, monitored location, where officials see what we see, with the option of reversing calls in real time? Rather than having officials stop the action to run off the field or stick their heads under a makeshift tent, these replay mavens would always be there, keeping an eye on the action and attempting to guarantee consistency from game to game and play to play. Given the millions of dollars spent each game on players and broadcasting, wouldn’t it make sense to spend a few more dollars to assure that the fans are getting what they are paying (a great deal) for and expect?

It’s time for the professional leagues/associations to not be constrained by the old ways and to completely rethink how these games are officiated. Only then will we all get from sports what we want and deserve.

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