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Lousy Call! Technology Could Help Referees


The loneliest men in sports have not been making any friends lately.

Both umpires and referees have been making news, despite their often repeated goal, stated by World Series rookie umpire Tom Hallion last month after Game 3: "As an umpire, you never want to be involved in the outcome of the game." He added: "We like to get every play right. We're human beings, and sometimes we get them wrong."

Hallion and his five partners at October's Fall Classic did not quite reach their goal. In Game 3, Hallion called Carl Crawford safe at first on a close play, but replays showed he was out. In Game 4, it was the Phillies who benefited after veteran umpire, Tim Welke, called Jimmy Rollins safe at third during a rundown, despite an obvious tag on his backside.

Not to be outdone by their American counterparts, two English soccer officials have set a new standard for head-scratching calls.

In a Sept. 22 game between Watford and Reading, referee Stuart Atwell and one of his linesmen, Nigel Bannister, combined to become the ultimate sales pitch for any type of goal-line replay technology. After a scramble in front of goal, the ball bounced across the end line, two yards wide of the nearest goalpost. As both teams headed up the field and Watford prepared for a goal kick, Bannister signaled to Atwell that he saw the ball cross the line between the goalposts and that Reading should be awarded a goal. To the astonishment of all 22 players on the field and the 14,761 fans, Atwell overruled his own eyes and gave the goal to Reading. The replay made it painfully obvious how wrong the call was.

Problem solved

So, assuming officials want some kind of automated technical assistance, what is available?

First, pure video instant replay gives officials a second, slower chance to see the play again and possibly adjust their live call. All four major sports leagues in the United States use replay at some level.

In addition to judging if a shot was taken before the buzzer, the NBA added replay this season to differentiate 2-point versus 3-point baskets. MLB commissioner Bud Selig has put a stop to the spread of replay beyond the home run/foul ball call for now, but public pressure may change that. The NHL's use of replay focuses mainly on different goal scoring scenarios. The NFL is the most advanced user of replay to judge multiple situations. Second, an emerging selection of decision-support tools can make the actual call for the officials using location-based technology. In tennis, the Hawk-Eye system is being used at such high-profile events as Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

A system of six high-speed cameras records a ball's movement, which is useful when it bounces near one of the court lines. It feeds the cameras' input to a central computer that analyzes the data from all angles and then creates a motion graphic that simulates the ball's location when it bounces on the court, either on the line or next to the line, with a judgment of "in" or "out."

A player can challenge a line umpire's original call, but Hawk-Eye's ruling is then final. The interesting illusion that tennis fans have accepted is watching this 3D simulation as if it is based on a single camera's footage of the ball. Actually, the sequence shown to viewers is Hawk-Eye's best estimate as to what actually happened based on the data it received from the cameras. There have been more than 550 challenges at the U.S. Open since 2006 when Hawk-Eye was installed. Thirty percent of those challenges resulted in a call being reversed.

Other sports

In soccer, Adidas and Cairos Technologies have partnered to create an "intelligent" ball that includes a microchip that transmits its location on the field to a computer.

The system also places a thin, underground electrical wire that surrounds each goal. If the ball's location is sensed to be completely inside the boundary of the goal, a signal is sent to a watch worn by the referee indicating that a goal has been scored.

This technology would have saved Atwell and Bannister from their embarrassment. However, after extensive testing at several FIFA tournaments, Sepp Blatter, president of FIFA, announced in March that instead of technology, two additional human referee assistants would be used to judge whether a goal was scored. "Let it be as it is and let's leave it (soccer) with errors," Blatter said. "The television companies will have the right to say he (the referee) was right or wrong, but still the referee makes the decision — a man, not a machine." Interestingly, the English Premier League was also testing the use of Hawk-Eye as an alternative to Adidas' smart ball.

Empowered fans

Even if the umps and refs don't want to use the technology, sports television producers still want to empower the fans.

In baseball, ESPN's "K-zone" and Fox Sports' "Fox Trax" show a virtual representation of pitches and the strike zone to let us judge the accuracy of the home-plate umpire's calls. Think that last called strike was a bit outside? Watch the computer generated replay that is accurate to within one-half inch.

Then, go ahead and yell at the ump. If only they could come up with a way to transmit our voice directly into the stadium.

The "intelligent soccer ball" from Adidas has a microchip that transmits its location on the field to a computer. The Hawk-Eye system is being used to review calls at such high-profile tennis events as Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

Dan Peterson blogs about sports science at his site Sports Are 80 Percent Mental and at Scientific Blogging.