sports rules for reviewing audio-visual evidence

In professional sports, instant replay technology typically must provide “indisputable visual evidence” of a mistaken call in order for officials to overturn the call.  Understanding the “indisputable visual evidence” standard of review for audio-visual replays requires recognizing that:

  • major-league professional sports are primarily entertainment
  • entertainment value (excitement) increases with spectators’ immersion in the stream of on-field events

Officials’ deliberating about what is the correct call isn’t an exiting spectator sport.  Such deliberations should be limited to correcting blunders, meaning calls that are obviously incorrect to most fans in the midst of their real-time experience of the competition.

An interesting recent law article argues against the “indisputable visual evidence” standard of review and in favor of de novo review.  The article emphasizes a competitor’s perspective and just deserts. In the context of primarily considering major-league professional American football, the article states:

the value of error-correction gains strength from views about what those who participate in a rule-governed competition deserve, and about the justice of arranging institutions to yield outcomes that comport with desert.[1]

Major-league professional football players have more interesting work, higher pay, and greater social status than most persons, including persons arguably much more deserving of such rewards.  The factual correctness of officials’ calls in professional football has little significance to all but the narrowest evaluation of justice and desert for professional football players.  Major-league professional sports are a big-money entertainment business.  Considering standards of review for instant replay should begin from that economic reality.

Apart from obvious officiating blunders, erroneous reversal of an official’s initial call reduces the entertainment value of sports significantly more than erroneous affirmation of a mistaken call. The excitement of sports is largely in the moment of the game.  Immersed in the game, fans interpret what they see within the rules of the game.  Officials support that diegetic experience.  Making a call later is a poor substitute for making the call in the stream of the game’s normal competitive activity.  A human psychological tendency toward loss aversion makes regret likely to weigh more heavily than pleasure across two opposing fans after a reversed call.[2]  In addition, reversal of calls undermines the general experience of immersion in the game by raising the salience in consciousness of extra-diegetic activity.  Lessening immersion in the game reduces the entertainment value of sports.

Officiating rules need to be considered in conjunction with game presentation technologies and practices.  More cameras, higher-definition images, and more use of replays in game presentations may not make for more entertaining games.  Game presentation technology that allows fans to judge the game more accurately than officials undermines officials positions as supports for fans’ immersion in the game-world.  Sports officiating technology and standards of review should be chosen to support fans’ immersion in the sports game-world.

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[1] Berman, Mitchell N., Replay (March 7, 2011). Available at SSRN: Quote from p. 37.  Berman is a pathbreaking scholar in the legal analysis of sports.  A least one government bureaucrat has asserted the value of sports officiating in developing regulatory expertise.

[2] Berman (2011) pp. 37-9 considers this effect and argues that its importance increases with the extent that the relevant sport is valued as entertainment.

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