The Future of Sports: Artificial Umpires

The Future of Sports: Artificial Umpires

Guest post by Dr. David Staley, Director, Center for the Humanities in Practice, The Ohio State University

Chicago Cubs second baseman Ben Zobrist was ejected from a game in August.  He was upset with a called third strike by the home plate umpire and Zobrist gave him an earful.

There is nothing odd or unusual with this event: players and managers are frequently ejected for arguing with the umpire, especially if they say something personally insulting.  Which is what happened in this case.

Zobrist said to the umpire, “That’s why we want an electronic strike zone.”

This was not the first time Zobrist had made this plea.  “If we want to change something like that,” referring here to the quality of the umpiring in one game, “we’re going to have an electronic strike zone because human beings are going to make mistakes.” Read the article here.

As baseball fans know, an electronic strike zone already exists: when broadcasting the game, many networks now feature a strike zone superimposed over home plate.  I am not relying on any scientific evidence here, but when I am watching a game I happen to notice that the electronic system usually shows that the home plate umpire has correctly called balls and strikes.  Except when he doesn’t.

Electronic strike zones, the Hawk-eye system used in tennis (and other sports) and goal-line technology in Premier League soccer.  There are more and more instances where cameras, sophisticated software, and sensors worn by players are working together to make decisions once reserved exclusively for human referees.  As the speed and pace of athletic contests intensifies, many professional sports will begin to replace fallible human officials with seemingly more reliable “electronic umpires.” It is likely that in the near term future, human umpires and referees will be removed from the field.  In some sports, if there are human referees their jobs will not be to make calls or enforce the rules but to do custodial tasks like placing the ball on the line of scrimmage or breaking up skirmishes between players.

Players like Zobrist will have no one to complain to.

Posted September 24, 2018

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