The Potential for New Technology to Help Objectivity in Officiating and Reduce Referee Error

Dana Drew Shaw

Dana Drew Shaw

With the Golden State Warriors fresh off claiming the NBA Championship in arguably one of the best series finals, it is easy to argue that a couple wrong calls during the game, especially the first two games resulting in overtime, influenced the outcome. Over the years, referees have been the subject of coach, player, and fan complaints due to the subjective nature of officiating. While video replay has been implemented in many sports to make sure officials ‘get the call right,’ sports leagues should continually be looking to potential solutions and new technologies to minimize incorrect calls.

Despite continued training, sports officials are often at the mercy of their own perception of the contest in making accurate judgments. Mike Bantom, Executive Vice President of Referee Operations, recently stated in a news release: “NBA referees have the most difficult officiating job in sports, with so many split-second decisions in real time.”

As of March 1, 2015, as part of a new transparency initiative, the NBA began publishing its “Last Two Minutes” reports. The “Last Two Minutes” documents decisive officiating calls, including relevant non-calls. After close games (games within five points at the two-minute mark), a senior basketball operations manager or a senior referee manager reviews and evaluates fouls, instant replay decisions, and turnovers. The NBA published 26 reports for the 2015 Playoffs, which included 48 incorrect calls or incorrect non-calls. Those numbers are alarming in that they reflect an average of 1.846 incorrect calls during the last two minutes of every close game.

Among the notable calls published in the “Last Two Minutes” reports was this boundary call from Game 3 of the Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. At this point in the game, the Warriors were down three points with 17 seconds to play. The play involved a boundary violation that would determine which team had possession of the ball. It is critical to make the correct call at this point in any game.

To assist officiating personnel, sanctioning bodies for many sports have implemented video replay. However, video replay is time consuming and affects the flow of the game, and is also inefficient due to limited vantage points from camera angles. And in many sports, like basketball and baseball, the rules do not allow every play to be reviewed, or the number of replays permitted is limited. Thus, many sports are looking to new technologies to help referees and officials. FIFA recently adopted a new detection system that determines when a ball crosses the goal line, similar to systems used in tennis and cricket. Referees in stadiums where the technology is used wear wristwatches that vibrate and receive a text message when the ball crosses the line. NASCAR has implemented a high-tech video review system involving real-time frame-by-frame analysis via laser measurements and 3-D modeling to track pit crew violations.


Photo courtesy of Shamir Coll, law student at the University of Toledo

Additionally, students at the University of Toledo have developed a method of marking the boundaries of sports courts or fields with a color-changing coating in an effort to further assist officials when making real time decisions concerning the boundaries of the court called C.L.A.S. (Contact with Line Accuracy System). The now patent-pending pressure sensitive coating features technology that allows a brief but bright/contrasting change in color when players or a game piece makes contact with a boundary allowing referees more time to make calls as well as objective confirmation of their visual perceptions. This invention would increase the accuracy of calls involving out of bounds lines as well as the three point line without slowing the pace of the game through instant replay review. The C.L.A.S. system can be applied to other sports, such as football, baseball and tennis, where out of bounds and line calls are critical.

As sporting events continue to generate large amounts of revenue, any enhancement to fairness in play and negating human bias should be welcomed!

This article was written by Shamir Coll, law student at the University of Toledo, with contributions from Seth Traub and Dana Drew Shaw. 

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