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December 10, 2002
NEXT: RoboRef
ESPN The Magazine

Accordion strike zones. Arbitrary ball spots. Blatantly wrong out-of-bounds calls. For many fans, coaches and players in this advanced age, today's zebras are all-too human. The quest for impartial perfection -- the assurance that it's players, not officials, who determine the outcome of games—has led to a rush of high-tech invention seeking to eliminate human error. And as the Tom Brady "fumble" and Warren Sapp "block" prove, Replay Justice is still in the eye of the beholder—and anything but "instant." So why not go all the way? The technology is out there -- all we need is the right package to put it in. His name is RoboRef. But you can call him Hal.


Taunts like, "What are you running on? Windows '95!" will become common.
A scrum of 300-pounders battling over an imaginary plane, and some normal-sighted human must decide if the ball crossed the goal line? Not for long. A German outfit, Cairos Technologies AG, puts sensors in soccer balls and shin guards, then grids the field with transmitters that signal the ref's watch when the ball's in goal or a player's offside. Hook up the hardwood, and RoboRef whistles three seconds to the nearest nano. Wire the pigskin, no more chain gang. Put it in foul poles, baseballs, even bases and gloves, and managers need never kick dirt again. And when TD or not TD is the question, the answer is instantaneous -- and right.

Since Game 5 of the 1997 Marlins-Braves NLCS, when Eric Gregg carved a strike zone big enough for him to walk through, MLB has sought to wrest control of the zone from umpirical interpretation. Even talk of monitoring the boys in blue with replay has umps balking. But the Hawk-Eye computer-animation system, currently a hit on British cricket telecasts, precisely tracks the flight of a thrown or batted ball. It's so good, it may replace line judges in tennis. (Look for it at Wimbledon next summer.) Give it to RoboRef, and Bud Selig has one less labor headache. Now, if only there were robo-players, Bud's world would be perfect.

Half a tick left, ball in-bounded, two dribbles, shot. It's good! Or is it? Since 1994, the Precision Time System, developed by former NBA ref Mike Costabile, has synched the game and shot clocks to refs' whistles. Now the NBA is wired with replay cams to distinguish buzzer beaters from buzzer bombs. RoboRef applauds prying the game from timekeepers' fingers. Of course, exactly when the whistle blows is still in human hands. (Actually, mouths. But you know what we mean.)

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  • RoboRef: Virtual zebras
    The best argument for RoboRef? Human nature -- as manifested in swallowing the whistle, cutting stars slack and "balancing" a questionable call with one that's just as questionable the other way. One British study shows that soccer refs watching taped plays are more likely to favor the home team when they hear crowd noise than when the sound is off. RoboRef would be immune to such influences, and he would never be susceptible to more sinister interests, like fixers -- save those wielding an oil can.

    IT'S UP ... IS IT GOOD?
    Thanks to RoboRef, we could have perfect, cold impartiality in all officiating matters. Just what we want. Or is it? "We see efficiency as the most important thing, but sports is about inefficiency," says Dr. Nadine Gelberg, an expert in sports technology. Dr. Gelberg contends that sports teaches us how to resolve imperfect, inconclusive conflicts and forces us to deal with human frailty -- and fairness. Refs are flawed, messy -- and usually pretty good at their jobs, just like athletes. Plus, if we eliminate the human factor, we might lose one of the inalienable joys of being a fan: blaming the ref when the game doesn't go our way.

    This article appears in the December 23 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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