Time for Robo-Ref?

03/14/2011 02:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Larry Strauss Veteran high school teacher and basketball coach; author, 'Students First and Other Lies'

Officiating debacles such as ended Rutgers' chances to advance in the Big East Tournament remind us of the human fallibility of even the most experienced and well-trained sports officials and the worldwide electronic scrutiny under which they now must work.

Basketball refs at the collegiate and professional level can employ the very same instant replay that so often second guess their calls in order to protect themselves and the players and coaches against the injustices of human error on some out-of-bounds calls and on the validity of any buzzer-beating shots.

Of course, the blunder last Wednesday -- in which referees Earl Watson, Jim Burr, and Tim Higgins ignored an obvious traveling violation and failed to stop the clock when Justin Brownlee of St. Johns trotted the ball out of bounds like a running back avoiding a tackle with nearly two seconds still on the clock -- could not have been officially reviewed since not one of the three refs blew the whistle.

But in the age of instant replay from multiple angles slowed down to hundredths of a second, is it even fair to expect human beings to continue to rely on their own eyes only to have the rest of us immediately see their mistakes? Could some sports run more smoothly, more fairly with an electronic, camera-eyed, computer-brained ref?

Let's imagine, for a moment, the first generation Robo-Ref:

  • Its hard-drive containing the rule book tweaked for clarity.
  • Its processor receiving through some secure (we hope) wi-fi connection every angle being shot by every camera in the building - along with it's own camera eyes on the court. Eyes in the back of its head and on each side. Why not?
  • The processor fast enough to crunch all this visual data instantaneously and detect any and all fouls or other violations.
  • Full wireless communication with the other two Robo-Refs on the court.
  • Their robo-voices connected directly to the PA system, its calls going directly to the electronic scoring system.

To player complaints, Robo-Ref could smugly replay any call -- or no-call on a screen embedded in its torso and shut the complaining players and coaches up. No need to T them up. I mean, one wouldn't give a technical foul to a player or coach who was yelling at the shot clock. And Imagine how quickly the whiners would stop slapping their own wrists or flopping or gesticulating for the fans when they realized how foolish they looked.

I wonder, though, how precisely these robots would be programmed. Would they call traveling and palming the ball according to the rules? Might this be the end of the star pampering? Would it keep un-hyped rookies from accruing four fouls whenever they are on the floor for five minutes?

Perhaps -- and that would be a good thing. But could we ever be sure that Robo-Refs weren't being hacked by unscrupulous owners and GMs and overzealous fans? And would we ultimately miss the imperfections of human referees? Would we long for the days when we had someone besides players and coaches to blame for our disappointments? Would we long to have back our most vehement indignity and outrage?

I know that if high school leagues ever replaced officials with robots I'd miss the striped guys I've gotten to know -- even the ones who swallowed their whistles when my two-guard got hacked trying to hit the game winner and get us into the playoffs this season.

Most people knowledgeable with the sport understand the challenges of calling a basketball game at any level. In fact, I've never heard anyone who criticize a referee go on and claim to be able to do a better job. But perhaps the NCAA and NBA should consider broadening the use of replay to avoid travesties such as Rutgers being robbed of one last chance to catch St. Johns. I'm sure Steve Lavin had a talk with his team about playing out the clock -- just in case next time the refs are actually watching it.