And I’m still waiting for my flying car, yo.
The Sixth Man: SML will on occasion sub-in for one of the starting five, give them a quick breather.
“Yo SML, kick that ol’ robotic, futuristic, George Jetson crazy joint”
I generally try to confine my posts to the weekend, when no one cares anyway, leaving the weekday posts to the big dawgs with the big words and big ideas. But with the recent conversations about NBA referees handing out technicals, referee bias, and the typical complaining about refs that happens during the NBA playoffs, I just had some crazy visions. The focus of this website is to discuss race, sports and the press. The Starting Five does a terrific job at that, and the work they are doing here in that regard is of the utmost importance. If there is one thing they do beyond posting about race and sports, it is to inspire discussions. And so I feel like inspiring a discussion, too.
The Economist recently had a cover story on the wireless revolution, and how it will change our world. It got me thinking, in particular about the lack of technological improvements in the world of sports. Well, let me clarify: technology has changed the statistical analysis of sports. It has changed the training of athletes, and has improved equipment in almost every sport. But it has failed to make much of an impact in one field – the officiating of sports. The most successful advancement directly implemented into American sports in this regard over the last 20 years is the instant replay in the NFL.
The history of instant replay in the NFL illustrates how difficult adopting new technology can be in sports. The NFL first started using limited instant replay in 1986, inspired by the instant replay system in the USFL in 1985. The system lasted for six years, through 1991. In 1992 the owners voted against continuing the system. So it was until 1999, when it was brought back (sidenote: As a Jets fan, I am aware that it was brought back in large part due to Vinny Testevarde’s controversial touchdown against the Seahawks in 1998; the Jets’ most successful season since Namath’s guarantee spurred the NFL to change the rules). The instant replay is used sparingly in the NFL, as an entire game might not feature a challenge at all.
It is used even less in the other major sports – in basketball it is used only in the case of buzzer beaters. That’s it. And baseball has no instant replay rules at all, which is odd considering the game is already long enough, what’s another two minutes?
Tennis, of all sports, has adopted the latest technology in sports officiating; on controversial line calls you can use 3D renderings (based on chip technology), which aren’t actual replays but take the human subjectivity out of it. And that about sums up technological improvements to the officiating of the game.
Can’t we do better? With all the wireless technology out there, with microchips costing pennies? What about MLB? Instead of relying on aging subjective umpires, what if players were equipped with sensors at the right height on their knees and chests corresponding to the textbook strike zone? Add a few sensors in home plate, and you got yourself an automatic 3D strike zone. In 2003 MLB used the QuesTec system (an elaborate system of cameras and computers which tracks the ball from the pitcher’s hands until it crosses home plate) in a dozen stadiums to determine if umpires were calling strikes consistently and accurately. The result? Veteran control pitchers such as Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Barry Zito all so a spike in walks when they pitched in stadiums with QuesTec. The conclusion one could draw is that umpire bias allowed for a friendlier strike zone for those pitchers, among others. That bias could easily be eliminated from the game, without slowing it down.
And basketball? One of the calls I often find the most vexing is the missed goaltending call. Minor, yes, but how hard would it be to have a chip in the ball that can clearly determine whether the shot was on its way down or not? I can think of at least one blown call this season against the Knicks that annoyed me, and at least one call in the playoffs so far (Nets-Raptors I think?). Foot on the line for a three-pointer? There shouldn’t be human error, not when technology can quickly make the determination. Offensive interference (tipping the ball in while it is still on the rim)? Ditto. Without worrying about making these calls, or focusing on who the ball touched last on out of bounds calls, whether that player’s foot was on the line, etc. a referee should, in theory, be able to focus on the things that only humans (at this point, anyway) can determine – contact fouls and travelling violations.
For the record, I recognize that basketball, as opposed to tennis, baseball, and football, is a flow sport with no down period in between plays. So while tennis, baseball and football all allow for time to quickly review the previous play, basketball doesn’t necessarily allow time between plays. Still, a foot on the three pointer seems like the kind of thing that can be corrected quickly and automatically within five seconds, while play continues. Ditto offensive interference – either the basket counts or it doesn’t. Out of bounds plays are automatically pauses in plays.
One place where technology in sports is quickly adopted is the telecast; it has certainly changed the way we view sports, from pseudo-strike zones to annoying talking computer graphics. I find it odd, though, that basketball still trails baseball in this regard. No, I don’t want talking basketballs. But usually information about baseball plays, information that is of no use statistically, is readily available. How fast was that last pitch? 96 MPH. How about basketball? Marathon runners use chips in their sneakers to precisely calculate their running time and distance. Let’s equip some ballers. How high did Nate Robinson get on that last dunk? 50 inch vertical. How high did Dwight Howard sky to grab that last rebound? He reached up 12 feet. How fast was Terrell Owens running on that route? He just did a 4.3 40.
When you look at the track record, sports has done a pretty poor job of adapting technological developments into their product. Even sneakers have iPods in them nowadays. The cost of these technologies is not that prohibitive. Certainly they could be explored more….