07 Oct Stopping the ball rolling: how is technology affecting sport?
Technology has been enhancing how we play, watch and experience sport for decades. It is so strongly integrated in modern sports, you wonder how they were played fairly before the digital age. How did officials make the correct calls based on split-second results for, say, horse races or 100m sprints?
Reliable is boring, unreliable is pointless
Hawk-Eye line calling has been used in tennis since 2006, assisting line umpires to make correct decisions over whether a ball is hit in or out. In such cases, Hawk-Eye is only used to review a close call or when a player wants to challenge the line umpire’s decision.
However, I noticed during this year’s US Open that the line umpires were replaced entirely by Hawk-Eye’s automated technology. This meant that the players could not challenge what they believed to be incorrect line calls – a factor which makes the game more entertaining (as this video shows).
The US Open’s decision to remove line umpires was due to COVID-19 restrictions – so they may return next year – but what’s to say this is not how tennis will operate in the future?
If it is not used right, should we use it at all?
Technology’s integration with sport has not always been smooth sailing. The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) in football is a prime example. The Premier League explained that VAR “will not achieve 100 per cent accuracy but will positively influence decision-making and lead to more correct, and fairer, judgements” but since its implementation in 2019, VAR has received more backlash than praise.
The 19/20 and 20/21 Premier League seasons saw a host of controversial VAR decisions, regarding offside calls, penalty kicks (both those awarded and those not), yellow cards that should have been red and vice versa – the list goes on. But the major problem with VAR has been its inconsistency – how can a dangerous tackle be overlooked when a virtually identical tackle from the day before was a red card offence? The inconsistencies between VAR decisions since its introduction have been plentiful.
This begs the question: why use VAR at all if we cannot use it properly? Technology that is designed to help a referee make the right decision should help settle disputes, not cause them. This indicates that the problem is not necessarily the technology, but instead how it is used.
Righting the wrongs
Technology has transformed how sports operate, both for the players and spectators. In terms of fast and accurate decision making, technology has a role to play. However, I think there is a limit on how far it should be involved. In tennis, further implementation of technology could take away elements of entertainment from the game, while in football too much reliance on VAR has led to multiple inconsistencies which have often decided huge matches.
Fortunately, before the start of the 21/22 season, officials reviewed the VAR rules allowing officials to make fairer decisions including thicker offside lines and softer rules for handballs; but I predict more controversies are yet to come.
Whatever your stance on the matter, if not used effectively and consistently, technology can have a negative impact on the enjoyment and entertainment of a game – which is what football, tennis, and sports in general, are all about.
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