Christer's Corner: Video Review in Refereeing – Issues and Considerations
Photo: Sam Cox/Flickr
For many years now, with the emergence of new technology, there has been an intensive public debate about the utilization of video reviews in the area of sports refereeing. Many sports fans feel that, with the existence of modern methods, it is self-evident that video review should be given a more prominent role. They believe that it is a very simple and straight-forward issue and that sports federations are just being too slow and conservative.
The reality is considerably more complex, and I will try to use my experience both as an international referee supervisor and as a frequent observer of professional sports events to shed some light on the many issues and considerations.
Many will be familiar with the debate about video review through the rather public disagreements in the past between FIFA and UEFA (read: Blatter and Platini) about the importance of showing respect for the human factor in officiating. Part of the argument has been that the human mistakes will always remain an inevitable part of officiating in sports events and that it is wrong, or impossible, to try to eliminate such mistakes. At one point, it was even argued that the mistakes resulting from errors in observations and judgment should be seen as one of the ‘charming’ aspects of sports. For me, this is frankly to take an argument to an absurd and improper extreme. Very few participants or spectators are likely to find it ‘charming’ to win or lose a game on account of a refereeing mistake.
Another argument has been that it somehow undermines the authority and credibility of a sports official, if his/her decisions are frequently challenged and changed on the basis of video review. It has been said that this could shake the confidence of the official and lead to a weaker performance. Again I am very much inclined to disagree. The appropriate attitude of an official would be to welcome technical support, assuming that it is handled correctly, and to be pleased to have the risk of important mistakes reduced in this way. Strong referees will not have egos that make them feel that they are infallible and that their decisions should not be questioned. Their overriding objective should be fair play and a positive influence on the atmosphere of the competition.
Moreover, at the professional level, it is these days typical that large amounts of money are at stake. I am not saying that this somehow, in principle, makes it more important to get correct decisions from the officials. However, it inevitably contributes to an increasing pressure on the officials. This should, in turn, make any technical support in the decision-making more appreciated at this elite level, which also is the level where the access to video review is more realistic.
What kind of situations and decisions should be reviewable?
While this question can best be analyzed in great detail on a sport-by-sport basis, it is possible to discuss some general principles in order to illustrate how careful and specific one needs to be in prescribing what can be reviewed. A referee will essentially make decisions on the basis of observations of facts (did the ball enter the goal, did the player step over the line etc.) or on the basis of judgment (was there an offensive or a defensive foul, what was the impact or intent, did an action have real influence etc.).
In some sports, it is traditionally anathema to second-guess decisions based on judgment, partly on the basis of principle, and partly because it is normally impossible to find a method that unequivocally leads to a judgment that is better than the original one. Some sports find it appropriate to use video review to correct an obvious error in observation, as here the video evidence may be indisputable, but in other sports this is seen as untenable, due to the vast number of observations of facts (some of which are likely to be incorrect) that could never be reviewed and corrected. An attempt to do so would make a mockery of the game or lead to enormous inconsistencies.
However, if one notes the approaches taken by four major professional sports in the United States (baseball, basketball, American football and icehockey), where video review is well established and the resources are enormous, one finds huge differences in approaches. Each of these sports has had its own practices evolve, where specific situations or decisions have become the critical ones and video review is seen as required or permissible. This can involve a mixture of facts and judgments, and an external observer can be astounded about what seems as a lack of principles or consistency in the decisions about what situations to include. Not surprisingly, this also leads to frequent complaints along the lines that decisions which ‘obviously’ should be reviewable are not being included, and the scope of the reviews is often revised.
Generally speaking, the key is to ensure very precise and well-known regulations. All participants, teams and game officials, must be absolutely clear about which situations are reviewable and which are not. There must be absolute consistence and no room for confusion. Both an expert and a casual observer may find the dividing line strange or illogical, but one needs to respect that in each sport a practice has evolved which recognizes which are the key moments that must be included. Often this leads to an emphasis on decision such as ‘goal or no goal’ or ‘before or after time expired.’ However, there is also a tendency to include observations or judgments which reasonably could not be observed by the human eye. This also includes flagrant infractions which literally happened ‘behind the backs of the officials’ but which would be intolerable to leave unpunished.
Where and how is video review feasible?
Obviously the scope of the video review in a particular sport determines to some extent where and how the review can be implemented. The existence of an huge number of cameras in all relevant positions, well beyond what might be needed for a simple TV broadcast, combined with a centralized ‘war room’ with access to all the images from about 30 arenas, and the expert staff handling this system, is what makes it possible to have extensive video review in the NBA and the NHL. But this structure will obviously never be feasible at the youth or amateur level, where video review is mostly an illusion. However, even at the professional level, the scope of the video review may be specifically limited by what is practically feasible in terms of camera positions, staffing, and review technology.
A specific issue involves the decision-making procedure on the basis of evidence obtained from video review. This in turn is somewhat related to the flow of the game in the sport involved. Some sports, like football/soccer and handball depend on a more or less continuous flow and long reviews would be very disruptive, a reality which in itself limits the scope for video review. By contrast, in basketball with its numerous time-outs (or clock stoppages) and American football with its drawn-out natural stoppages, more frequent and more extensive reviews would not be out of place.
But there is also the question of who specifically has the final word once the video images become available. In sports where a very quick turnaround is critical, one would need to rely either on a ‘guru’ who is present at the game and has access to a monitor or on the game officials themselves. But other sports prefer to have some super expert in a ‘war room’ hundreds of miles away take the final decision and communicate it to the game officials. It is interesting to note that NHL and Major League Baseball follow this latter approach, whereas NBA and NFL let the game officials have the final say. The bottom line here is that fancy technology is of little help, unless you have in place a procedure where true experts can review the images and make a decision based on absolute rules knowledge.
Of course, we must not ignore the important question of how video review is triggered in different game situations in different sports. Where video review is used more extensively, such as in NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB, this is carefully regulated. Some situations may automatically require review, in others the ‘central war room’ steps in, and in yet others the game officials themselves may initiate the review. But a key issue is the scope for having a review requested by a team or an individual athlete. In the latter case, safeguards must be in place to prevent mischievous or frivolous requests which would have an impact on fair play and the flow of the game. This has to be carefully thought through, so that a balance is achieved between legitimate utilization and abuse. This in fact applies also in individual sports such as tennis. Here the situations are rather clear and well-defined, with a very easy review method available. Yet the approach chosen so far is a rather conservative one.
Some general conclusions about how to proceed
- Federations need to be less conservative and more willing to introduce video review in ways which are realistic and appropriate for their respective sports, with the scope of the review aligned with the resources available at different levels of competition. What is realistic at the professional or elite level may be totally unrealistic or inappropriate at lower levels.
- However, once the decision is taken to utilize video review, the implementation should not be too quick and spontaneous. It is critical to ensure a solid and consistent structure, both from a practical standpoint (access to equipment and expert staff) and in terms of a legal framework. The regulations must be very clear and precise, even at the risk of becoming somewhat bureaucratic.
- A video review system is likely to be more helpful and effective if it is not too ambitious. The inclination to include too many situations and decisions will probably be counterproductive, as the video review may then be used too frequently and become disruptive or controversial. The emphasis should be on decision which are extremely important and on situations where it would be intolerable to be unable to have the right outcome.
- In line with my attempt to discuss the issues and considerations in very general terms, each sport must find its own approach. The typical flow of a game is highly relevant, as is the nature of the decisions taken by the game officials. There is no standard approach which fits everywhere. But In those cases where the team or athlete can request a review, I believe it must be an accepted part of the rule that this may inevitably be used to create a disruption for the opponent and not purely to gain a favorable decision.
- In most instances, the purpose of video review is to be able to correct a decision that needs to be changed at that very moment before the game continues. But in some specific instances, post-game review may also be relevant. This may involve the further review of serious violation for the purpose of determining the extent of a post-game suspension of a player who was sent off from the game.
- It should not be forgotten that video review should also be routinely used as an assessment and training method for game officials, both in relation to the evaluation of performances in individual games and as a general preparation for upcoming assignments.