Any self-respecting football fan won’t hesitate to yell at the refs for a controversial call or grumble after a ruling on a fumble ― even if unwarranted, it’s part of the game. Usually, the protests die down after the next play or two and the game goes on.
At the Georgia Tech game against Pitt last Saturday, that was not the case. Bad call after bad call came down on the Yellow Jackets, stripping us of a potential three touchdowns but leaving Pitt relatively intact with only a few minor penalties. After time expired, the final score was 52 to 21, with Pitt the victor.
For those unfamiliar with football, three touchdowns (plus two extra points along with each touchdown, appropriately dubbed "two point conversions") is 24 points ― enough points alone to win a game in some cases. If you do the math, those extra 24 points wouldn’t have won us the game, but I choose to ignore that.
Understandably ― especially because parents flocked to see the game for Family Weekend ― the roar in Bobby Dodd stadium after each questionable ruling was intense, and short tempers ignited anti-referee chants that drowned out the announcer. Surrounded by 36,383 angry Yellow Jacket fans, I couldn’t help but wonder: do we (or will we no longer eventually) need referees?
Under the assumption that if referees are removed from games, they would have a technological replacement, here's my take on both sides:
1. Football is too complex to be fully and accurately analyzed by a machine.
Consider that even in environments like surgery where robots play a large part, there is almost always a human behind the controls ― perhaps future referees will make decisions off computer output in addition to solely what they can see.
2. Human referees will be needed to maintain order on the field.
Some sort of neutral physical presence needs to separate players during games. Removing referees could leave the door open to brawls and increased physicality by players, coaches, and fans. Additionally, players might respect a human referee more than a computer program, with human refs leading to more orderly conduct.
1. Calls will be made more accurately without human referees.
For calls with a clear definition (like touchdowns, which have a defined set of criteria), it makes sense that computers would render improved decisions. More subjective calls (like taunting, which is left to the officials' best judgement), however, may prove more difficult for technology to master. Computers may leap that hurdle, but I doubt that advance would come in the near future.
2. Officiating systems without human referees will limit controversy and boost football's image.
Unfortunately, arguing with the refs regardless of the call is a time-tested tradition, and football controversies will almost certainly continue. As for boosting football's image (and the image of associated companies), only time will tell.
Will referees be replaced? One thing is certain ― it's too early to call.