Hawk-Eye, stakes, and murder: two sports articles, no binary decisions

I noticed two articles on sports concerned with officials’ decisions today, and their juxtaposition raises more questions than either, alone.

The first was an article in The Guardian questioning Hawk-Eye, the technology used in tennis to determine whether balls landed in our out of bounds, thus usually to determine points won or lost. Anyone who watched the Wimbledon Gentlemen’s Final yesterday witnessed Novak Djokavic yelling “What is going on?!” at the umpire when calls — including challenges that were resolved by appealing to Hawk-Eye — seemed continually to go against him.The article describes the results of a paper that critiques Hawk-Eye’s accuracy and ends with an interesting question:

The paper concludes that Hawk-Eye should be used as an aid to human judgement (their italics), and that, if used with a little more nuance, it could provide added enjoyment of the games involved and public understanding of technology, its uses and its limitations. What do you think? Do you want a simple binary decision in your sports, or would you rather know the accuracy of Hawk-Eye’s output?

I’m old enough to remember a time before Hawk-Eye, and I recall when it was introduced. I remember being skeptical at the time. Why think that a model of what happened would be better than human judgment?  And, really, is the issue which is more accurate? Part of sports is overcoming bad calls. Our collective mania for objectivity borders on madness.

To answer the author’s question at the end of the article: neither. I’d prefer if we took such technologies, including instant replay, completely out of all game-time decisions in sporting events. If leagues want to review officials’ decisions later, after the game has been decided, fine. But this rush to judgment, as if we have to have the ‘objectively’ correct answer right then and there, is a bane to sports.

Do we really enjoy Djokavic’s comparatively mild protests more than John McEnroe’s? You cannot be serious!

On the same page as the Hawk-Eye article is a link to another article in The Guardian, this one on a recent local soccer match in Brazil during which a referee stabbed a player, then was mobbed, stoned, and decapitated by the angry crowd. Say what?! Look, I’m from Alabama, so I’m well aware of people who do really stupid things in the name of sports. As an Auburn fan, I’m glad no one has decapitated Harvey Updyke, yet. But it’s interesting how the story of the Brazilian double murder (yes, the player stabbed by the ref also died) is treated — as an image problem:

Brazil faces mounting pressure to show it is a safe place for tourists before 12 cities host the 2014 World Cup and Rio de Janeiro the Olympics in 2016. The Confederations Cup in June was marked by violence as anti-government protestors angered by the amount of money being spent on the events clashed with police.

So, unless Brazil can clean up its act and tone down the violence to a level that’s acceptable to tourists, the World Cup and the Olympics are in trouble? Someone must be Djoking!

When did we lose all perspective about what’s important? Sports are a form of entertainment, one that’s more entertaining when we take it seriously. But it’s possible to take sports too seriously. Killing someone is an extreme example, obviously. But treating murder as an image problem reveals that we take sports too seriously in other ways, as well. As if the real problem is whether Brazil will respond to mounting pressure to show it is a safe place for tourists in time to save the World Cup. Imagine the economic fall-out were people to stay away in droves! As if that were the problem, rather than the problem being our thinking of sports in economic — or technoscientific — terms. Or our thinking of the protests as a problem for sports, rather than an expression of a cultural moment.

So, to rephrase the question raised by the initial article: Do you want simple, binary decisions rendered by someone — or something — else, or would you rather do the hard work of thinking?

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