I have just finished watching the most farcical game of American football I can remember in 20 years of watching the sport. The result will make waves in the NFL but also serves as a reminder for other sports that technology can only help, not replace, well trained officials.
For those that did not see the match up between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks, the game ended with Seattle throwing a ‘Hail Mary’ pass into the end zone in the hope of getting the touchdown they needed to win the game. Here is how the ball came down (Green Bay in white shirts and yellow helmets):
Even if you know nothing about the NFL, you can see Green Bay’s Jennings has the ball in both hands before Seattle’s Tate puts both hands on it. If they had their hands on it at the same time, it is a Seattle touchdown – but they do not. The officials cannot decide what happens, one correctly calls it a Green Bay interception, another incorrectly calls it a Seattle touchdown. At full speed this might be forgivable, but as a scoring play this automatically gets sent to video replay. How the referee could uphold the touchdown call after reviewing the video is baffling.
To be fair to the referees, they are not used to officiating these games that are at the pinnacle of the sport. The NFL is mired in a dispute with its regular game officials over pay. As a result it is using replacement officials – and receiving a welter of criticism over their performance in games. Indeed, it was already an active issue in this game because it was debatable whether Seattle should even have been in a position to launch their final pass after an earlier dubious call on their drive down field went their way. But in reaching their judgement on this ‘Hail Mary’ throw, the replacement officials have now clearly changed the result of a game with one bad call.
In soccer technology is about to be introduced to help referees decide whether a goal has been scored. The move follows outcries over goals that were never given because officials could not be sure the ball had crossed the line. Two methods have been approved for use by governing body FIFA. Sports fans will be familiar with HawkEye from its use in line calls at Wimbledon tennis matches. The other system is GoalRef, which uses magnetic sensors and a special ball.
The hope has to be that these systems remove the potential for human error because, as tonight’s NFL game showed, horrendous mistakes can be made even when the officials have the benefit of technological aids.
Technology can help, but sports still need officials who know how to make the big calls.