We saw it time and again this past NFL season. A bang-bang play, a coach’s challenge to the resulting call by the officials, and a seemingly endless delay before a judgment was finally rendered. And we saw it recently at the end of the Wisconsin-Arizona Elite Eight game. A tough out-of-bounds call followed by several minutes of delay while the players tried to stay loose and focused prior to the final few seconds.

There are numerous similar examples from various professional and college sports that we could consider, but the question remains the same. That is, just because we have the technology to review the judgment calls of game officials in various sports, does that impose an ethical obligation on the administrators of professional and college sports to use that technology? Have we passed the point where we can ever again provide autonomy to the game officials? Are we losing more and more of the human element, and if so, is that a good outcome or a bad outcome?

Let’s take a look at the American sport most steeped in tradition, baseball. We now have appeal procedures for decisions of the umpires (thankfully, not yet for balls and strikes) and I have to admit that so far in this young season, it does appear to be working fine. But, for those of us who grew up accustomed to the sight of an angry manager storming out of his dugout to confront an umpire, with absolutely no chance that his histrionics would result in a call being changed, this is quite a different look.

I am admittedly old-school in this regard. I grew up in an era prior to instant replay and slow motion recaps from numerous angles. I always thought that for better or worse, whatever the sport, the judgment of the game officials should and would be the final word. In particular, the sport of baseball for over a century has provided endless debates and arguments for fans concerning what coulda/shoulda/woulda happened if only the umpire could see past the end of his nose.

Do the folks who run the various sports at the professional and collegiate level have an ethical obligation to do everything in their power to arrive at the correct conclusion on the decisions of game officials? I would argue that no, they do not have any such obligation. I sense that I have already lost this argument, but let me explain my thinking.

I think ethical management of a sport involves putting the best people possible in the position of officiating the contest. Will those people make mistakes? Of course, just as the coaches and players will make mistakes. If, as appears to be the case, the majority of administrators, coaches and players now take the position that “we need to do whatever we can to get the call right,” then I wonder how long it is before Major League Baseball uses technology rather than a human to judge each pitched ball. After all, a computer could measure each hitter for an identical strike zone and instantly record whether the pitch was in the measured strike zone, and we would never again have to hear about different umpires having different strike zones.

Technology has changed the flow of every game it touches. I heard an NFL representative say recently that the league is making changes to curtail significantly the amount of time that video review took this past season. That’s great news, and I hope it is in fact true, because momentum is becoming a thing of the past in the NFL as lengthy reviews become more frequent and disrupt the flow of the game. Likewise, the NBA has pledged a different, speedier system for reviewing calls next season.

As for me, I will reflect longingly on the days when humans truly made officiating decisions, and sometimes made mistakes, in professional and college sports. We somehow survived those mistakes, and controversial calls found their way into the culture of American sports. And what about soccer, the world’s most popular sport? I hope we always have debates in soccer about an official’s onside/offside judgment call that allows or disallows a key goal, and I suppose I’ll have to live with the new goal-line technology designed to remove the possibility of a controversial judgment call such as what we saw in the Germany-England match in the 2010 World Cup, where a clear goal by England was not seen to cross the goal line by the game officials.

What do you think? How far should we go with technology to get the call right? Is it somehow unethical not to use all available technology? I welcome your thoughts at mike.gilleran@gmail.com. Thanks.

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