Sport: a reflection on the “mechanization” of arbitration

Twelve cameras that track player movements

Semi-automatic offside technology is used at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. An offside position lasting only a moment, it’s easy to get this wrong. In past World Cups, offsides have often played a decisive role in a team’s victory or defeat. One of the best-known and most discussed cases is, for example, the South Korea-Italy match, in the round of 16 of the FIFA World Cup held in Korea and Japan in 2002, when the second Italian goal was disallowed because ruled offside.

In the 2022 World Cup, the 12 dedicated cameras that are installed under the roof of each stadium follow the movements of the players from each angle. The official balls are equipped with sensors that detect their precise position, and this data is sent to the video assistant referee. All of this information is combined, and when a player touches the ball in an offside position, the head referee is informed by the video assistant referee thanks to the latest AI advancements.

The video assistant referee follows the game on a computer in a special room reserved for FIFA, and relays the information to the main referee (image from the official FIFA website)
The video assistant referee follows the game on a computer in a special room reserved for FIFA, and transmits the information to the main referee. (Image from official FIFA website)

At the time of the passes, the positions of the players on the attacking and defending side are determined automatically (image from the official FIFA website).
At the time of the passes, the positions of the players on the attacking and defending sides are determined automatically. (Image from official FIFA website)

Using the latest technological advancements is nothing new to the FIFA World Cup. The 2014 match in Brazil used goal-line technology, in which sensor-equipped official balls help determine if a ball crosses the goal line. In this case, the message “Goal” is immediately displayed on the watch worn by the main referee. Video Assisted Refereeing (known as ‘VAR’), which uses video footage to help the main referee decide difficult cases, made its debut at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

In major sporting events watched around the world such as the FIFA World Cup, television images are immediately broadcast on the internet, and refereeing errors are increasingly the subject of intense criticism. The use of this kind of technology in refereeing is perhaps effective in making matches fairer.

Video refereeing is also used in other Olympic sports, notably by line judges for tennis or badminton, or to determine the winner in judo or wrestling.

The introduction of the “robot referee” in the American Minor League

Japanese professional baseball has now integrated the “request” system, that is to say call for instant replay. Following the example of the American Major League Baseball, video has been used since 2010 first to judge questionable home runs (home runs), then to judge fly balls on the fence or close plays on first base. 2018 saw the debut of the current appeal system which allows each team manager a challenge to determine outs and saves at each base.

A similar challenge system is used in Major League Baseball and since this season, the AAA, one of the minor leagues, has introduced a different version, with the Automated Ball Strike System (ABS), which defines the area where the challenge is possible. We have already seen cases in which a receiver disputed the judgment on the ball and obtained a new grip immediately after the video refereeing.

Thanks to the introduction of video assistance to refereeing, there are certainly fewer scuffles on the pitch than before. But this mechanization of the refereeing of catches and throws raises doubts about the need for the referee. Coming back to football, if the refereeing of goals and offside situations is in fact automated, does this not raise questions about the need for the presence of the referee on the pitch?

Video refereeing started with sumo

It may come as a surprise, but in Japan video refereeing was first used in tournaments of sumo. In 1969, on the second day of the spring tournament, the fight between the yokozuna (the highest rank among sumo wrestlers) Taihô and wrestler Toda, ranked fifth among first division wrestlers, was judged as doubtful because at the very edge of the fighting circle, the dohyo. The main referee (gyoji) declared Taihō the winner, but the judges who later discussed it felt that the referee had made a mistake and awarded the victory to Toda, which thus ended Taihō’s 45-game winning streak.

But when the fight was shown in slow motion by NHK, Taihô’s victory was beyond doubt, and this refereeing error caused a lot of noise. This is how from the next tournament, the summer one, video assistance was used.

the gyoji who has the highest rank gets on the dohyo with a short dagger in his belt, the meaning of which is to show that he is ready to open his stomach if he makes a wrong decision. Sumo is thus both a very old sport and the first to introduce advanced technology.

We can see the case of the dagger on this photo taken on November 18, 2015 in Fukuoka (Jiji)
The dagger sheath can be seen in this photo taken on November 18, 2015 in Fukuoka. (jiji)

The introduction of video assistance in sumo did not lead to the disappearance of the gyoji on the dohyo : the tradition is preserved. But we should be able to introduce detectors inside the ring, or equip it with advanced cameras, capable of analyzing the movements of the wrestlers.

If this is not done, it is certainly because the presence of the gyoji is essential for sports. the gyoji wears an old costume, with a hat on his head called eboshi, and holds in his hand a fan which he raises towards the winner. Without his presence, sumo would lose much of its appeal. Video assistance in this sport is precisely that assistance.

The humanity of a referee

There was a lot of talk this spring in Japan about a baseball umpire who admitted an officiating error during a national high school spring tournament baseball game. The match was interrupted to allow him to announce on the microphone that he had made a mistake and was sorry. Comments on social media have been overwhelmingly positive. Many have found these excuses magnificent.

Microphone in hand, the baseball referee acknowledges his mistake during the baseball game and apologizes, March 20, 2022, at Kôshien Stadium (Jiji).
Microphone in hand, the baseball referee acknowledges his mistake during the baseball game and apologizes, March 20, 2022, at Kôshien Stadium. (jiji)

The error is human. Everyone understands that. There are doubtless many who felt the humanity of this referee who recognized his error without having an authoritarian attitude which would have made him affirm that the judgment of the referee is absolute.

Yamaguchi Tomohisa is an amateur baseball umpire. His way of being with the players is appreciated by them. Between sets, he strongly encourages the players who are going to defend, and he is very attentive to them. There are videos on specialized sites that show it, and one of them has been viewed nearly three million times.

He said that for him, baseball umpires have a role akin to that of an orchestra conductor. As in sumo, a referee is not only responsible for judging, and a machine could hardly replace him because it would not ensure the smooth running of the match in the same way.

The rules of basketball state in full the mission of the referee

The official basketball rules published by the Japan Basketball Federation discuss the role of the referee in its preface.

“These rules exist so that the competition takes place with the highest degree of physical and mental strength, with respect for each other. »

They continue as follows: “The players are those who implement the spirit of these rules. The referee governs the game in fairness and harmony, ensuring the strict application of these rules and giving sound directives. He must be trusted by everyone. »

Sport is a human activity, a culture that has been passed down to us. The rules exist so that the competitors play fairly, and the presence of the referees is essential for this purpose. Should the rules dare to announce it in full?

In a book published more than thirty years ago, in 1991, but which retains all its topicality, The sociology of sport, The late Nakamura Toshio (a professor at the University of Hiroshima), one of the first researchers in the field of sports, wrote this about the mechanization of refereeing:

“It is inevitable that the referee will make mistakes, and that players and coaches will also make mistakes in refereeing. Perhaps it is impossible to suppress the questions and protests to the arbiter which sometimes lead to violence and can lead to the announcement that a party is leaving the game. But instead of inferring that we must replace the referee with machines or ban questions and protests, we must first try to reflect on our choice of what sport should be. »

It is on this word “choice” that the questions relating to our present relate, it seems to me. We live in an age where we are automating ourselves by seeking the convenience that machines bring not just in sports but in everything, and we need to properly assess the choices we have to make in society and in life.

(Banner photo: Semi-automatic offside technology used during the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. FIFA)

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Sport: a reflection on the “mechanization” of arbitration

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