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Man vs. Machinery

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 28 AutoZone Liberty Bowl Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Watching the World Series a few months back, I commented in my household that I was very impressed that the home plate umpire was calling balls and strikes consistent with the electronic strike zone being imposed over the batter on the television screen. He was spot on with just about every pitch. Which gives added confidence that the game was being called well, no controversies at the plate. Also knowing that many professional tennis events were moving to electronic linesmen, it made me think. Which is better? Man, or machine?

Should we go to an all-electronic home plate umpire for calling balls and strikes? Does the US Open need any linesmen at all if they can implant sensors in all the base- and sidelines? With pylon-cams in the end zones to tell us if the plane was broken or if the back of the endzone was breached on a catch would we even need the backfield judges?

Obviously, not all sports lend themselves to electronic monitoring. You can’t necessarily have drones flying over a football field to watch for offsides or holding calls – which would absolutely fry out any drone because we all know that holding can be called on just about every play.

Or for quarterbacks that fumble the ball on a backward pass when they are trying to do intentional grounding.

Things like mandatory video replay reviews and coaches’ challenges were implemented over the years to try and make the human part of refereeing/umpiring a game less fallible. I mean, in theory, if the officials can go back and look at a play to make sure they got the call correct then we should have less errors and less impact to the game from bad calls.

In theory, right?

But Art rarely imitates Life, as we know.

If you are an Arkansas Razorback fan, you know we seem to have a love/hate relationship with SEC Officiating. Now, I’m not going to start bashing the officials. Rarely is a blown call the reason for a team losing a game. Typically, there are many factors that played into a loss, with possibly poor officiating having a butterfly effect in that one incorrect change then impacts everything after that point. But just like bad officiating could have negative ripple effect, how a team responds to it can turn that ship around also.

Now, as Razorback fans, we also know that bad officiating can absolutely change the outcome of a come. The Bo Nix fumbleat Auburn in 2020 is a very glaring example. A proper call on the field and the game was over, Arkansas wins. Most recently, Arkansas football had to win the Liberty Bowl last month three times before the ending was finally determined and just last night Devo Davis fouled out of the basketball game on a trip where the replay clearly showing the Missouri player’s foot inside the restricted arc and the referees were told they couldn’t review that play. He should have been the recipient of the free throws, not the one charged with the foul.

Like most processes in America, there is always a way to take a complaint to a manager, and not act like a Karen in doing so. I’m not privy to the whole process, but I know the coaches can’t publicly complain. But the Athletic Directors can file a disputewith the SEC office, I would assume with video evidence, and ask for a ruling.

Twice in the last month the SEC officiating office has issued an apology.

While there were two questionable calls in the Liberty Bowl, the only one that was officially disputed was the one where Quincey McAdoo was called for targeting. That call was challenged because to let it stand would have cost Quincey the first half of the opening game next fall. That wouldn’t be fair to him since the replay evidence showed the hit did not meet the definition of targeting. Challenging the other questionable call wasn’t going to impact the game and would only have been a moral victory at that point. The SEC office did the right thing and overturned that call so that Quincey is not unjustly penalized. Fortunately, Arkansas was successful in the third overtime and won the game, otherwise the call on Quincey could have cost the Hogs the bowl.

The second apology came today from last night’s basketball game. It said the player’s foot in the arc was reviewable. Now, we don’t know with certainty that they would have overturned it courtside even if they had reviewed you. I am continually amazed at how clear an instant replay (at all level of sports in all sports) can show what was wrong with a call and you still get a “call on the field is confirmed or call stands” as the official answer. I sincerely hope that the University of Arkansas has not finished appealing all the calls last night that were “bad” calls. It won’t change the outcome, but if it makes better refs out of those officials or removes officials that aren’t up to snuff with the rules and what they are seeing, then at least maybe some other team won’t be sitting there the morning after a loss, shaking their heads at the unthinkable.

Again, I’m not blaming Arkansas’ loss to Missouri or Vanderbilt on the officials. We had enough of our own issues and mistakes with turnovers and missed free throws and trying to figure out the best blend of players for any given situation. We cost ourselves the games. The officiating just made it easier to do so.

But what is the answer? Human beings are fallible creatures. We make mistakes. And a lot of us don’t like to admit if we’re wrong or missed something. Adding replay abilities and electronic devices to monitor lines or call balls and strikes was intended, I believe, to mitigate our human frailties and level that playing field. Not sure what you saw, run the tape back and look at it again. One foot inbounds or two? Zoom in and take a look at it.

Modern technology has afforded sports officiating myriad ways to ensure they get the calls right. And yet, somehow they continue to miss them. Just ask the New Orleans Saints about their pass interference call that cost them a chance to go to Super Bowl LIII. They may never have another chance to go, as a team or as players on that team that may get traded elsewhere. How many players don’t get to go to a World Series based on bad calls at the plate?

Missing calls does impact these teams, and these players. If not actually, then mentally. If you believe you are going to be charged with a call because of how a game has already been called, then you may tend to play different.

And apologies don’t really help much. The NFL agreed the Saints got shafted on that pass interference call but what can you do? The process isn’t in place, or at least workable, that allows for an sideline dispute resolution before the game can continue. Saying they are sorry the officials missed the call doesn’t get the Saints to the Super Bowl. And the time involved in the reviews completely throws off the rhythm and flow of the games. The basketball game Wednesday night, a 40 minute game plus halftime, took 2 hours and 45 minutes to complete.

Let me say that again – 165 minutes for a 40-minute game.

Do we go back to the old days and take replays out? Just say “Hey, guys are going to miss some,” and move on? That’s almost more palatable that accepting that they have how many camera angles at their disposal and multiple monitors and officials in the booths and back at headquarters somewhere and with all of that still miss calls.

No system will ever be perfect, but the level of imperfect we’re seeing now just can’t be accepted.