First down and a fractally unmeasurable distance
October 1, 2019 8:28 AM   Subscribe

The motivation for using video review in sports is obvious: to get more calls right. This seems like an easy enough mission to fulfill, but anyone who has spent even a little time watching sports on TV can attest to the fact that the application of video review is not so simple. In most sports where it is applied, video review has actually created more confusion and less clarity. Why is this the case? Follow me into an examination of thousands of years of philosophical discourse, and we will find the answer together, my friends.
posted by Etrigan (28 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
As I've gotten older, crankier, and less patient, I've come to view instant replay as a sad attempt to impose a sense of objectivity and order where it doesn't belong, as part of a much broader and older trend away from enjoying spectator sports as a frivolous but beautiful showcase of athletic brilliance, to enjoying sports as hierarchical, zero-sum, investigation of how to order things from worst to best. This article gets into some of these issues really, well, especially the diminished acceptance of anything vague, even when it means imposing psuedo-objectivity on activities that are inherently subject to randomness. Everything in sports must be rendered objectively measurable, and then ordered into hierarchical lists for consumption, a product which is ultimately more valued by its core audience more than the events themselves. The Super Bowl may have the highest ratings, but the NFL draft is now the biggest event of the year in terms of emotional engagement with NFL fans. There is more engagement with the NBA's off-season than there is about the post-season, which lately seems like an afterthought. It's a strange and weird thing, and it makes any of it harder to watch. So I feel bad for the Saints, but sometimes you just got to live with a blown call, it's just sports.
posted by skewed at 8:55 AM on October 1, 2019 [15 favorites]


They've certainly gotten by without video review in professional wrestling for decades.
posted by Billiken at 9:31 AM on October 1, 2019 [4 favorites]


The article keeps using baldness as an example, but then uses count of hairs, which is a terrible metric.

One can be completely bald. One can have a full head of hair. Therefore baldness is a continuous spectrum, not a binary.

That said, if you need to convert it to a binary for a computer rule, you can define the rule: "a person is bald if their head of hair is less than 40% full."

So too, you can define "control" once you set the predicates: a player can be considered to have the ball if they have one or more hand in contact with the ball and no other players do. A player "controls the ball" if they continuously have it for 0.5 (or however long) seconds.

The solution exists, but the real issue is that viewers don't want correct, they want exciting. They want a game that's fast-paced, and they'll accept the occasional blown call (even if they say they won't) over a slower pace. A grudge over a "blown call" generates much more fan engagement than knowing with 100% certainty that you lost fair and square.
posted by explosion at 10:17 AM on October 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


The solution exists, but the real issue is that viewers don't want correct, they want exciting.

The question the leagues should always be asking the audience is "Are you not entertained?", because at the end of the day, professional sports is an entertainment business. I think it would be very interesting for any league to try a few games without any video replay used at all, just to see how the audience reacts to a game that doesn't have long pauses for a call to be made (and that call is often subjective as well, based on available angles, vague rules, and the judgement of human beings). There is no perfection to be found - give the audience the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, the anguish of the blown call.
posted by nubs at 10:32 AM on October 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


there's a corresponding problem in law, where "crispness" or the excluded middle is necessary in court (one is either guilty or not guilty) and so a certain ontological vagueness is moved forward -- as to whether or not you're arrested, or charged, or take a plea bargain to a lesser charge, and so do not go to court. Sort of like the "non-call" in a collision in the lane in basketball -- by not blowing the whistle, the referee does not have to say if it is a charge or a block.

A commonly implemented solution elsewhere is to use fuzzy logic, which allows for things to be both A and ~A, with degrees of "A-ness" or "~A-ness." It's how clothes dryers, camera image stabilization, lots of other things work. For this case, it would be something like "a majority of informed, disinterested viewers would say this is/is not a catch. If it is indeterminate then the equivalent of a coin-flip takes place.

One thing about football (and baseball, but not really soccer or basketball) is that a do-over can be possible when the outcome is indeterminate. The runner is both safe and out in a caught stealing situation, and so no out is called and the runner returns to the starting base. The catch is indeterminate and so the down is played again. Harder for "the ball is both foul and fair and if fair is a home run," although in that case you could award a fractional run.

I mean, why not.
posted by PandaMomentum at 10:43 AM on October 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


After a moment's thought -- an umpire could determine that a runner is "70% out" and it would count for 0.7 of an out and the runner would stay on base but only count for 0.3 of a run if they score.

Now that would be hilarious.
posted by PandaMomentum at 10:46 AM on October 1, 2019 [11 favorites]


So too, you can define "control" once you set the predicates: a player can be considered to have the ball if they have one or more hand in contact with the ball and no other players do. A player "controls the ball" if they continuously have it for 0.5 (or however long) seconds.

Does a finger count as a "hand"? A fingertip? Must it be the same fingertip? What portion of Shaquem Griffin's left arm counts as a "hand"?
posted by Etrigan at 10:50 AM on October 1, 2019


See, I;m really excited about this now. The catch is ruled indeterminate, you lose half a down, the ball is placed where it was or wasn't caught, and if they score on that possession they get 3.5 points. What's not to love?
posted by PandaMomentum at 11:00 AM on October 1, 2019 [3 favorites]


They've certainly gotten by without video review in professional wrestling for decades.

They do have pugilistic review. After a disliked call, they beat up the ref.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:01 AM on October 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


The solution exists, but the real issue is that viewers don't want correct, they want exciting.

The new NFL catch rule generally aims more towards 'exciting' rather than '100% legally accurate', which in my opinion is an improvement. Unfortunately, the only video that loaded for me was the Dez Bryant one (and no text), which was used as 'exciting' to change the rule (and is old) so I'm not sure if there are any from current season that are questionable.

The new pass interference rule on the other hand seems totally random.

The catch is indeterminate and so the down is played again.
Right. And anytime each side commits a foul, the outcome is indeterminate and therefore replayed, and the funny part is all fouls are somehow judged equally so a serious personal foul is the same as a minor hold or 1" worth of defensive offsides.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:13 AM on October 1, 2019


Oh no, you could have non-offsetting penalties too! Rule on everything that happened and move the chains around, adjust the down by fractions and the potential points resulting from the score! "that's probably a hold, for -7.5 yards and a loss of half a down, and most of a pass interference, for 75% of the distance to the point of infraction, so it's first and a half down on the 22.2 yard line with a score value of 4.5 on this possession. TWEET!"
posted by PandaMomentum at 11:37 AM on October 1, 2019


These are sad times indeed if one cannot trust a sportsman to provide honest testimony about their own perceptions of an event. Is that proverbial "good sport" who only desires success by honest endeavor no longer the hallmark of these team sports? Sad to think so, but if that be the case then it may be time to term more to the law to determine possession. Have each team appoint a "game lawyer" who would depose all the witnesses to crimes of the field, where a ball or play was lost due to theft or chicanery, and then, under threat of being held liable for perjury and subject to penalty, hold a trial where the events could be recounted in the players own words to determine who best deserved ownership or position.

The standard would need be of the higher order of no reasonable doubt rather than reliance on the lesser preponderance of evidence to ensure the best possible outcome to maintain that absolute standard of integrity sports teams have long been known for. Sure it might take a bit longer to work out all the elements to reach the proper decision, but surely sporting events are of such importance that any added time and effort would be worth it if the result was true and acceptable to all, as is noted for the justice the court system provides. They could also provide an opportunity for plea deals to allow for an accelerated process or negotiated outcomes through mutually agreed mediation to speed things up when appropriate.

Of course if absolute integrity has also fallen by the wayside, then they could just choose to favor whichever team was behind to keep the games closer and more exciting, or favor the team with the greater number of fans by basing the decision on what would be more popular for followers of the league, or perhaps go back to the "old ways" and let the players in conflict fight a duel to determine the results. There are so many options the league hasn't even considered yet.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:47 AM on October 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


Have each team appoint a "game lawyer" who would depose all the witnesses to crimes of the field, where a ball or play was lost due to theft or chicanery, and then, under threat of being held liable for perjury and subject to penalty, hold a trial where the events could be recounted in the players own words to determine who best deserved ownership or position.

So generally NFL ref is a part-time job and some of the referees are lawyers, so they already have some of the crew to implement such a solution. And you may joke, but honestly a tv show like Judge Judy + Fantasy Football is probably going to be created by uh...2025.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:04 PM on October 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


There are so many options the league hasn't even considered yet.

The two teams play a mini-game (much like overtime), with the disputed call going in the winner's favor, at which point the main game resumes. Any disputes during a mini-game are resolved by creating another mini-game to resolve it, and so forth.
posted by nubs at 12:06 PM on October 1, 2019 [5 favorites]


Pistols, at dawn.
Both exciting AND satisfying.
posted by twidget at 12:14 PM on October 1, 2019


1. no more than 60 seconds for replay.
2. No slow mo - watch at regular speed only.
3. Gives time to watch a couple of different angles of the play, and anything other than a very obvious blown call gets left alone.
posted by COD at 12:14 PM on October 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


This is sort of a confused article: in the headline and lede we're led to believe that we'll be presented with a knock-down philosophical case against the use of video review, but in the end the author admits that video review is well suited for investigation of non-vague rules interpretation. It's not surprising that video review fails to solve difficult problems in philosophical vagueness; there are plenty of cases in which the rules aren't vague; often video review serves to clarify a point of vagueness when in real-time it was unclear whether there was vagueness or a correct call to be made.

The lede could just as easily be: "Video review in sports is a triumph. It solves a lot of problems, and philosophers have unsuccessfully struggled with the kinds of problems that it doesn't solve for thousands of years."
posted by Kwine at 12:30 PM on October 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


Kwine, I think it's even worse than that. The explicit assumption is that the goal of replay is "to get calls right". What if the actual goal is actually to satisfy all the stakeholders that the call was made as correctly as possible?

Like, the "right" call isn't the one that satisfies the logical preposition: the event unfolded according to the eternal and unchanging definition given in section 3.1.a in the Book of Rules. The "right" call is the one where everyone goes "Yeah that seems right". Or, in the case of disagreements, the right people go "that seems right". Whoever they are.
posted by dbx at 12:51 PM on October 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


The two teams play a mini-game (much like overtime), with the disputed call going in the winner's favor, at which point the main game resumes. Any disputes during a mini-game are resolved by creating another mini-game to resolve it, and so forth.

... Are we trying to make football Turing complete now?
posted by PMdixon at 2:00 PM on October 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


The law is America's true national sport (from Judge Judy to live congressional hearings to Law and Order to Court TV) so it's no surprise that our other national sport is becoming a game of lawyers. As much as we all like to grumble that instant replay is ruining sports, in the NFL at least it has seamlessly merged with the sport - controversial calls generate the most discussion, and it seems that a plurality of non-advertising broadcast time now goes to reviews with experts in a video box joining in to adjudicate on the fly.

Football turned into a courtroom trial because the fans like it - it's a feature, not a bug.
posted by bbuda at 3:13 PM on October 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


The existence of big time gambling makes replay review a necessity.
posted by jamjam at 3:24 PM on October 1, 2019 [4 favorites]


Interesting, because it's not the philosophical debate I was expecting it to be. I was expecting an argument between whether the world we see is continuous or discreet. The refs on the field see the world as continuous, and the flow of the action determines their call. The replay camera, with its ability to advance frame by frame, breaks the world into discrete bites that can be frozen, slowed, sped or reversed to show detail invisible to the refs.
The rules, and this is where the philosophy of the article intersects with my thoughts, are written with a continuous world in mind, because that is what we have always seen. but the discreet nature of the frames in replay causes the language of the rules to fail, thus the replay causes more problems than it should.

For my part, i think that the NFL fails by applying replay to the sexy, but ultimately wrong plays where continuity dictates, but fails to apply replay to more objective and discreet situations, like whether the facemask was grabbed. It does get some things right, like sideline calls and whether the ball crosses the goal line.

Baseball should absolutely go to an automated balls and strikes computer, because baseball umps are garbage at calling balls and strikes.

Rugby seems to use replay judiciously, and so does soccer football, but i watch less of that, so...
posted by OHenryPacey at 4:30 PM on October 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


The question the leagues should always be asking the audience is "Are you not entertained?", because at the end of the day, professional sports is an entertainment business.

All this is assuming that the audience isn't actually more entertained by the occasional stop to dissect a play while waiting for the refs to rule, watching reruns over and over from every angle and arguing about what it ought to be and then celebrating or complaining when the ruling comes in, both about whether the ref got it right or wrong and about whether it helps or hurts your team.
posted by straight at 4:42 PM on October 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


The question the leagues should always be asking the audience is "Are you not entertained?"

With NFL broadcasts in particular, there's an amount of courtroom drama in the instant replay calls that I think *is* pretty entertaining. Like, first you see the replay of the questionable call. The announcers speculate about whether or not the coach will challenge. You see the coach traipse onto the field and throw the flag while jawing with the officials. You check in with the network's rules expert (Mike Pereira or similar). There's suspense while you wait for the call to be announced. It's not football, but it's not bad! On preview, what straight said.

ESPN football writer Bill Barnwell has proposed a reality TV style instant replay review where a jury of fans and former players vote live on whether or not to overrule the on field call.
posted by chrchr at 4:45 PM on October 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


... Are we trying to make football Turing complete now?

They’re trying the Bombe on this down.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 7:03 PM on October 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


Speaking only of football (soccer) for the moment, the question we should be asking is "who's in charge?"

The problem with the system as it is being used currently is that it disempowers referees, and that some of them appear quite content with that. Weak referees are allowing VAR to make decisions for them that they are unwilling - not unable - to make themselves. Strong referees meanwhile are obliged to refer to VAR even when they haven't asked for it, and have had to stand impotent for minutes on end while the computer overrules their decision, and often plays it over and over again on the stadium screen, so the fans can see exactly where the referee got it wrong.

Considering a large part of the football referee's job is to maintain order on the field, as well as give rulings on the gameplay, this is not going to end well, any more than it ended well when 'expert systems' reduced the traditional bank manager's role to that of a plain customer services operative.
posted by Cardinal Fang at 12:16 AM on October 2, 2019


Exceptionally American solutions for exceptionally American sports:

Give the people 1 minute to send a text message, tweet or whatever to vote on the outcome of the call. Votes start at $1.99 each and go up geometrically the more times one votes.

Constructing any parallel with politics left as an excercise for the reader.
posted by Dr. Curare at 1:45 AM on October 2, 2019


Oh, I’m sorry, the whistle blew.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:34 AM on October 2, 2019


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