Theory: Knowing Who’s Best Isn’t as Important as Fun

It’s interesting to read about how sports were officiated years ago, and to compare that with how the same sports handle rules enforcement today. Over time there has been a strong drift toward trying to make sure every call is perfect, and to remove any possible asterisk from the final results. While that’s a worthwhile goal, I think it’s ultimately unrealistic, and pursuing it too far can lead to an inferior experience for players and fans. Better instead to accept that games will always be a slightly imperfect measurement of the players’ abilities, and to emphasize making each game fun rather than trying to turn it into an ideal measuring device for skill.

Historically, umpires, referees, and other people responsible for enforcing a sport’s rules were treated as a part of the game. It was understood that they would be wrong some percentage of the time, and that mistaken calls could affect the outcome just like an unexpected gust of wind or a player getting hurt. To paraphrase Justice Jackson, they were not final because they were right, they were right because they were final. If they made some errors in the course of being “right” with scare quotes, and final without them, well, mere mortals were the only ones available to run our games.

Technology has in many respects freed us from the tyranny of human fallibility in refereeing. We can view plays from different angles, slow them down, and revisit them many times over if necessary. Close calls can now be decided through multiple people’s painstaking examination rather than by a single, rushed observer. Opportunities for mistakes are fewer, and we can say with much more confidence that the players, rather than the rules-enforcers, drove the result of the game.

Yet, this accuracy has come at a cost. Games are slower, sometimes substantially so. As a result, watching professional sports has become, at least for me, a real test of patience; whenever the game starts to develop some momentum the refs head for the replay booth and the thrill is lost. Nor do I think I’m alone in feeling that way; I don’t know how often I’ve heard people bemoan things like TV timeouts, and instant replay has made games longer still.

Although I’ve never spoken to professional sports players about it, I have to think they can grow similarly frustrated as they are dragged out of the moment to wait for a review. Getting into the right mindset is critical in sports. That must be difficult when one is idly knocking about the field, waiting for the game to resume.

Doubtless some games have been won by the more deserving team because of technologically-assisted refereeing. However, I can’t help but feel that in trying to make sure that sports are more accurate, we’ve made them less fun. It’s not fun to wait for the umpires to get the results on a replay. (Whereas by contrast, it can be fun to grouse about blown calls. It’s a grand tradition!) Winning is fun, but winning on a technicality “after further review” when the other team is already dancing isn’t the same. Making sure that the record books are correct is causing us to sacrifice some of the experience on the ground.

In the end, we should accept that sometimes there will be judgment calls that might be made incorrectly. Eliminating those situations has a cost, and–in my view–it is a cost major league sports should not be paying. We watch and attend games for the fun, not for technical precision; let the mistakes be, as they long were, just part of the experience.

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