Mixed Signals

When Telecom Decides, Refs Get It Right

9/21/2010 3:50 PM

My son, Willy, 28, is a recent MBA graduate from the University of Denver, and a 2004 graduate from the University of Arizona. When it comes to U of A Wildcats football, well, let’s just say he gets even more passionate.

Indeed, this weekend, his alma mater plays mine, the University of California at Berkeley, and if his team does as well as it did this past Saturday against the University of Iowa, well, let’s just say I may not stay in the living room to watch the entire game. (My Cal lost last Saturday, to unranked Nevada, by an embarrassing sum.)

At that Arizona-Iowa game this past Saturday evening, which was nationally telecast on ESPN, there was one play that brought home, in a very positive and quality-of-life-improving kind of way, the true nature of TV sports broadcasts. I thought it worth noting for this column, “Mixed Signals,” because it so easily gets overlooked and taken for granted.

The typical national sports telecast these days involves some six to 10 cameras, spread about the stadium. Thus, especially on the field and during play, the action is looked at from as many as a half-dozen (or more) points of view. That is a lot of angles — even more than the referees on the field — that TV is able to provide to the play-by-play.

On Saturday night, at about the 10:45 mark in the third quarter, an Arizona special teams player, named Wright, fielded a punt and began running. At one point, Wright was tackled and fell, yet it was unclear whether he was properly tackled or down.

The refs on the field had a tough time deciding, based upon their limited numbers, their limited angles, and their limited human abilities (which are universally limited human abilities, not just those of the Iowa-AX officials reffing this game).

Unable to make a clear decision, the refs turned, of course, to the video evidence. Thank goodness.

In this instance, a low video angle showed that Wright’s hand had, indeed, touched the ground, while it was wrapped around the football. Indeed, the camera showed it remarkably clearly, but it is less likely that the refs saw it at as well as  angle the camera afforded (or that they saw it at all).

And based upon what the camera depicted, Wright was down where his hand touched the ground. The play ended there, and not a bunch of unfair yards down the field.

Thus, with the aid of what sports video affionados call today, “indisputable video evidence,” the game went on and the refs got it right. Importantly, no one could complain after the fact that there was anything unfair about the call.

Indeed, it is difficult to see the perspective of those purists who say that in an instance like this, the traditional view of “what the ref thinks he saw and calls is the law” should govern. And that holds for just about any sports, and a lot of other human endeavors.

Put another way, short of having to worry about a highly unlikely instantly doctored video, what the video shows, the video shows. In this instance, it not only got the call right, but it made the telecast better for it; and better telecasts, whether we admit it or not, make for better quality of life, which is a long winded way of just saying, “When Telecom Decides, Refs (Usually) Get It Right.”

Cameras and video can capture action that human eyes and human brains can’t. And if we are smart enough to use that properly, we can better the game’s ultimate result, for the fans, the teams, the refs, and the scorebooks.

To carry things further, this is one of those reasons why sometimes seeing the game live on TV can be even better than being there in person, because not too many people in that stadium were likely to have caught that sleight of hand by Wright, as he scraped the ground for a second or less.

And that live aspect is why — for many years, if not decades, to come — those rights-holders and distributors that control those live sports events (such as sports leagues and their cable, telco, and satellite operators) will have a lock on a huge number of viewers, and an audience who will pay for that privilege.

Meanwhile, wish us luck this weekend, because my Golden Bears will need all they can get, especially playing at the same home field, in Tucson, where Arizona squarely and fairly beat then ninth-ranked Iowa, 34-27, on Sept. 18.

Jimmy Schaeffler is chairman and CSO of Carmel-by-the-Sea-based consultancy The Carmel Group.