Restoring Fairness in Sports: The Case for Play Review


In the introduction to his classic “Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball,” author George Will dwells eloquently on the notion of fairness in sport. Though Will posits his remarks with specific reference to the ongoing controversies pertaining to performance enhancing drugs, his words nonetheless speak to the general theme of fairness in competition. Will essentially asserts that the crux of athletic competition resides in a commitment to fairness and established rules, wherein sport is elevated beyond mere play, demanding in addition that the participants, whether they win or lose, uphold a certain standard of behaviour in competition. Will claims that in this sense, there is a more serious side to athletics and competition in general, and to lose these standards are outright damaging to sport itself, regardless of how entertaining the game may become as standards are jettisoned. Will writes,

But there is an ethic of craftsmanship – the moral imperative to respect standards. It is said that being moral is doing the right thing when no one is watching. The categorical imperative of the ethic of baseball is playing conscientiously, even on a muggy August night in front of a small crowed when neither your team nor the one you are competing against is going to place in October. Sport is play, but play has a serious side. It can elevate both competitors and spectators. PEDs divide a sport in two ways. They separate the cheaters from the honourable and admirable competitors. And cold, covert and unfair alterations to the conditions of competition divide the competitors from the spectators, draining sport of its value as a shared activity for a community.

Cheating in sport is indeed morally reprehensible for any sports fan. We may let it slide when it is to the advantage of our own side, but once another engages in such a dirty practice it suddenly becomes objectionable, hence Will’s reference to Kant’s categorical imperative – we may approve of it given its short term benefits, but are unlikely to accept this type of conduct as a norm. At the basis of our objection to cheating is perhaps a distaste for the possibility that the less deserving team might ultimately walk away with the victory. Competition, and I understand this is naive in this day and age, ought to be equal from beginning to end, and only the superior competitor merits victory.

The idea of the better man or team being rewarded with triumph plays significantly into another hot-button issue that any non-sports fan is surely entirely sick of hearing, namely the debate over the use of instant video replay for the purpose of officials making calls. Through honest mistakes and perhaps dishonest tactics on the part of both officials and players, the entire momentum of a match can be shifted in an entirely new direction which can easily cost a team or player the most important victory or triumph of their career, examples of which include and out which is called safe or a goal which is not awarded despite being perfectly legitimate (more on these in a moment). As I’ve said, those uninterested in sports are likely to find this debate altogether frivolous, but three recent incidents – two from the world of football and one from baseball – saw the very notion of fair competition undermined due to botched calls on the part of officials and any sports fan knows that this should not continue.

The first two instances come from the world of football, both having taken place in the World Cup itself as well as the qualifying stages. First, there was Theirry Henry’s use of his hands to handle a ball before making a cross that would result in a goal as France played Ireland in the qualifying stages. Subsequently, that goal would put France through to the final 32, leading to calls for the goal to be revoked or for the match itself to be replayed. As France foundered in the tournament, failing to get past the group stages, many asserted that this was simply karma for France’s dishonesty in competition.

Secondly, in the final-16 round of the World Cup, as Germany squared off against England, a near repeat of the 1966 final seemed to take place. In 1966, as West Germany faced England in the final, a “goal” by Geoff Hurst in extra time, put England ahead and on the path to victory. In hindsight, we now know that the ball did not in fact cross the line. As the two teams met again in 2010 in Blomfontein, Germany took the early lead. As the second half neared its end, however, a goal from Frank Lampard appeared to put England levelled with their opponents once again. The goal, unfortunately for England, was disallowed by the linesman on account of the ball not crossing the goal-line. Unlike 1966, however, replay clearly showed that the ball had crossed the line and England had legitimately earned themselves a goal. Nonetheless, the linesman must call the game as he sees it and England remained behind Germany for the rest of the game.

The Lampard goal is particularly interesting, as it seems to mark not only an instance of an official failing to make the right call, but of dishonesty on the part of a player. Philosopher Peter Singer, evaluating the goal from an ethics standpoint in the Guardian, goes so far as to accuse German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer of cheating, stating,

Shortly before half-time in the World Cup elimination match between England and Germany on 27 June, the England midfielder Frank Lampard had a shot at goal that struck the crossbar and bounced down onto the ground, clearly over the goal line. The goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, grabbed the ball and put it back into play. Neither the referee nor the linesman – both of whom were still coming down the field, and poorly positioned to judge – signalled a goal, and play continued.

After the match, Neuer gave this account of his actions: “I tried not to react to the referee and just concentrate on what was happening. I realised it was over the line and I think the way I carried on so quickly fooled the referee into thinking it was not over.”

To put it bluntly: Neuer cheated, and then boasted about it.

Though Theirry Henry later expressed remorse for his handball against Ireland, it would appear that he too got away with cheating and unfair play.

Lastly, from the MLB, we have Armando Galarraga’s perfect game, pitched on June 2nd, 2010, though he wasn’t given credit for this perfect game, as umpire James Joyce called hitter Jason Donald safe at first base, despite Donald being clearly out. The controversy went all the way up to league commissioner Bud Selig, who ultimately decided not to reverse the umpire’s call. We might understand that Selig was hesitant to overrule the discretion of the official, despite Joyce’s own heartfelt admission that he made the wrong call, but the botched call hints at something wrong with all of these instances, namely that someone was cheated out of what the rightly earned. Lampard earned his goal, Ireland deserved a fair game, and Galarraga rightly earned his place among the very few who to have accomplished the superhuman feat of pitching a perfect game.

Any true sports fan knows that incidents like those described are simply unjust and ought to be prevented. The debate over instant replay remains heated, but I believe that there is a compromise to be made that would ensure that games are not held up but that plays can still be reviewed to ensure that the right call is made.

Instant replay itself remains controversial, due primarily to the fact that it can severely slow down a game via interruptions. In addition, relying solely on video replay can render officiating entirely useless. This technique would also prove especially detrimental to the two sports in questions.

Football, after all, relies on continual play and allowing momentum to develop over ninety minutes. While there are occasional pauses for throw-ins or free kicks, the game itself continues immediately after any of these are called for. Nowhere in either of the game’s fourty-five minute halves, save for instances of serious injury, does the game come to a grinding halt that causes players to wait an extended period of time before resuming play. This is one game in which ninety-minutes of play is actually constituted by ninety-minutes of play rather than constant starts and stops. Such a system allows for the long and elegant passes and run-ups to the other team’s half that make this game so exciting.

Baseball, though a very different game from football, also relies on the building up of momentum. Pitchers, for example, are constantly reading the tendency of batters as they step up to the plate, and from this decide what type of pitch they will throw. Sending an umpire to judge a replay time after time will disrupt the defensive team’s ability to take advantage of the offensive team’s tendencies which they have been trying to grasp for an entire game. Baseball, in the end, is a game of pace, and the spectator’s enjoyment comes from watching an inning develop as men are put on base or caught out by their opponents. Taking in a game pitch by pitch over the course of an afternoon keeps the fan engaged. Games have been growing visibly longer over the past few years and the last thing any baseball fan needs is more interruptions.

What then, is the compromise between allowing these type of errors to continue and NFL-style instant replays? How ought these errors in human discretion be remedied? The most sensible solution I’ve come across to both questions involves more human discretion. After the Galarraga incident, Will Carroll, a senior writer at Baseball Prospectus, offered the following solution in a New York Times discussion of the issue:

A system where a fifth ump is in the booth might work better than sending the home plate ump down a tunnel. I’d also like to see a system in place that would give umps feedback during a game — something like a buzzer that would tell them they just called a pitch a strike that was outside the defined zone. There’s room in the game for the “human element” but part of being human is admitting your mistakes and making things better.

Carroll’s real time feedback solution appears to offer a sensible and balanced solution to the problems at hand. Most importantly, this type of system will not impose lengthy stoppages on play. In the case of baseball, feedback will simply be a matter of an additional umpire in the box, which in turn gives him the ability to see plays from more vantage points, who provides quick feedback to the official on the field, correcting him on any erroneous call. In the instance which robbed Armando Galarraga of his perfect game, the umpire in the box could have instantly informed his counterpart at first base that the runner was indeed out. This type of system might require something of a rule modification which would allow umpires to retract erroneous calls, but so long as these retractions occur almost instantly and are limited to especially controversial and crucial plays. The umpire need not consult his colleague after every pitch, as this would defeat the purpose of preventing the game from slowing down, but in especially contentious and ambiguous plays, the ability to consult an additional umpire in real time would ensure that the right call is made and that the game remains fair.

The issue in football seems to continually come back to the fact that the linesmen are in particularly tricky positions, but must nonetheless call plays as they sees them. In the case of Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal, and many other similar goals (i.e. Maradona’s hand of God), the game would perhaps benefit most from an additional official stationed behind the net. Indeed, upon first seeing Lampard’s goal from a normal vantage point, I was under the impression that the ball did not cross the line. It was only after seeing the replay, which offered a view from behind the net, that it was absolutely clear that Lampard had scored, and it is impossible to know how such a goal, which would have levelled the game before half-time, would have shifted the momentum of the contest as a whole. The only clear view of the goal-line and the penalty box as a whole, is from behind the net in something of an elevated position. Giving the linesman real-time feedback from this position can quickly and easily correct mistakes made due to his often obstructed and unclear viewpoint without disrupting the game for any extended period of time.

In the age of athletes behaving badly, performance enhancing drugs, and leagues which run entirely on money, it is perhaps naive to think that sports is still the last bastion of fairness and the last thriving meritocracy that we have today. Nonetheless, despite these numerous scandals and controversies, it still could very well be said that athletics are the only place in which you must still play by the rules in order to win, but this is something we risk losing if competitors are not rightly given their due, for better or for worse.

If a pitcher throws a perfect game, they should be credited with having done so, just as a goal scored should be placed on the scoreboard so that the more deserving team is ultimately deemed the victor. In addition, in light of Singer’s comments regarding the Lampard goal, a system of review would ensure that while players may act deceptively, the competition itself remains fair and nonetheless ensures that the right call is made. For both FIFA and the MLB, it would thus be worthwhile to call a commission aimed at instating some sort of reform with regard to how plays are judged and whether or not they ought to be reviewed under any circumstances.

Anyway, that’s just my opinion, what the hell do I really know?

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