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