How the NFL Decides What New Technologies to Adopt

While Major League Baseball clings to century-old conventions and FIFA puts on soccer matches recognizable to a Victorian audience, the National Football League  has made incorporating new technology a key component of its operations.

That culture of innovation comes straight from the top of the league, and has led to a constant discussion between the NFL and team representatives over how to fulfill that forward-looking mandate while preserving the parity and the game play that fans love.

The gatekeepers for new technology are eight team representatives that form the Competition Committee, a body tasked with approving all rule changes. And over the last few years, increased pressure from the league for innovations has presented the committee with ever-more difficult choices as it negotiates the game away from its leather-helmeted past and into its computer-dependent future.

“We are responsible for ensuring that there remains a level playing field for all teams and ways to improve the game,” said committee co-chairman Jeff Fisher, head coach of the Tennessee Titans. “So we are always exploring different ideas that improve the game, but won't change the game to something different.”

How a Tech Becomes a Law

Most devices begin their journey from the laboratory to the gridiron when a company or inventor presents the proposed technology to the league, said Ray Anderson, NFL executive vice president of football operations.

“People will send us stuff unsolicited,” Anderson told TechNewsDaily. “We get a lot of stuff in here just from folks who send stuff in ‘to whom it may concern.’”

Once the NFL separates the functional devices from the crackpot Hail Mary passes, league officials will meet with the Competition Committee in February, during the Scouting Combine. By March, the committee will have selected the technologies worthy of further debate.

In addition to exploring possible second- and third-order effects of a technology that could compromise the game’s fairness, the committee examines whether the benefits of a new technology outweigh the cost of changing time-honored traditions.

That tension between conservation and progression splits the committee along the same generational lines that divide the fans, Anderson said.

“Every committee that I’ve been associated with has had more- and less-conservative members. You have some purists, some folks who’ve been around a long time. Then you have some of the younger folks who’ve grown up with technology and are more comfortable with what can be done,” Anderson said.

The instant-replay wars

Nowhere was that conflict between traditionalists and innovators more contentious than during the decades-long battle to institute a form of instant replay in the NFL. Instant replay remains the highest-profile gadget to augment play, and its introduction into on-the-field action exemplifies the process and theory behind the league’s technology-adoption policy.

The instant replay system allows coaches to stop play and force referees to re-evaluate their decisions. The referees  will examine high-definition video of a play from multiple angles, then  uphold or overturn the call.

Instituted in 1986, discontinued in 1993,  reinstated in 1999, changed again in 2004 and updated to high definition in 2007, instant-replay technology has caused an ongoing tug of war between the committee's conservative and more tech-friendly factions.

“It took a number of years to gain full acceptance of the system," Fisher told TechNewsDaily. "Every year we continue to look at the system and see if there are ways to improve the system.”

Those who resisted instant replay argued in part that the subjectivity of referees is part of the game. Those in favor of it argued that the instant replay used in television broadcasts made officiating mistakes so obvious to fans that a failure to correct those calls would hurt the credibility of the league.

That debate set the model for many of the disputes currently going on within the committee, and it led NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to institute a pro-innovation culture throughout the league, Anderson said.

[Read also "7 Ordinary Things Turned Hi-Tech."]

Lesson from soccer

Like instant replay, many of the technologies presently under consideration by the Competition Committee seek to use some level of computer analysis to augment gut instinct.

Two instances that have received particular scrutiny are a sensor that would help officials determine when the football enters the end zone, and the use of mobile devices on the sideline for coaches and players.

The idea of using a sensor, which would be implanted in the ball, has been under review for some time, but came to prominence during soccer's  2010 World Cup. If soccer's international federation, FIFA, had placed sensors in the ball before the tournament, a number of disputed goals would have been ruled correctly, proponents of the technology argue.

However, even with the glaring failure of soccer referees serving as a potential warning for the NFL, some members of the Competition Committee and NFL leadership still feel the loss of human decision-making would hurt the game.

“You have to take that seriously, and you have to weigh that," Anderson said, "but if it’s apparent that our viewers watching at home can see it, then we can’t let the purists overwhelm the ultimate call. You can’t let the human error make a difference when we know we can get it right.”

Conversely, members of the committee have decisively prohibited players or coaches from reviewing live video, from deploying dynamic statistical analysis software or from using mobile devices such as iPads during the game. But just as the more tech-savvy members of the committee successfully argued for the inclusion of  radios in quarterback helmets, so may they let iPads and real-time video eventually make their way onto the sidelines.

“We understand that technology is always evolving and improving around us in the world,” Fisher said.  “As a committee we are always interested in improving the game without fundamentally changing the game.”