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Video technology in sports adjudication: Part 2 – use on the sports field

NBA Refs Review replay
Thursday, 09 April 2015 By Craig Dickson

Part 1 of this article looked at the growing use of video technology in the resolution of sporting disputes in the courts. Part 2 below moves on to investigate the evolving role that video has played on the field of play itself, and raises important questions about its fairness and accuracy.

The first uses of film in sports

The gradual uptake but uncertain use of technological developments in the legal environment has influenced and been replicated in the sporting context. Moreover, the conceptual change from illustrative confirmation to evidential verification has also been duplicated.

The development of photography saw sporting contest being reported in the new visual medium even though the speed of sporting endeavour was initially beyond the capability of the technology to reproduce. Radio commentary of sporting events had begun in the early 1920s but as far as moving pictures were concerned, the first live television broadcast (of a football match) occurred on 16 September 1937 in the UK – the BBC showing a specially arranged fixture between Arsenal and Arsenal Reserves. The world’s first live televised sporting event had however, been the 1936 Summer Olympics from Berlin. Three years later, on 17 May 1939, the first televised sporting event in the United States was of a college baseball game between the Columbia Lions and Princeton Tigers. It was broadcast by National Broadcasting Corporation using just a single camera positioned down the third base line.

TV in Australia was officially launched in September 1956, although the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games had been broadcast as a test transmission by all three television stations operating in Melbourne at the time. Footage was also sent overnight to Sydney where it was broadcast the next day. On April 20, 1957 the Victorian Football League (VFL) was televised for the first time, with 3 local Melbourne channels broadcasting live coverage of only the final quarter of (as it turned out) the same league match, Collingwood v Essendon.

It was not until 1972 that the first Ashes test series was broadcast live by satellite from England and then on 1 March, 1975 television stations converted to full-time colour transmission. In New Zealand, it took until 1969 for a national network to be operational (although channels had operated regionally since 1 June 1960). Colour TV appeared in 1973 in time for 1974 Commonwealth Games (although due to limited facilities only athletics, swimming, and boxing could be broadcast in colour).


The modern day role of film

From such humble beginnings, the broadcasting of sporting events has grown into a multi-billion dollar, worldwide industry and as the technology has become more sophisticated so too has the substance, number and complexity of the images broadcast. The US and Canadian TV networks experimented with ways to replay key moments in a sports broadcast in the early 1960s but the debut of the instant slow motion replay was on CBS’s broadcast of the Army-Navy (American) football game late in 1963. The “Chalkboard” (which allowed commentators to draw freehand over television pictures) followed in 1982 and there have been a number of advancements since: super Slo-Mo, Stump Cam, Spider Cam and the computer-graphics enhanced Hawk-Eye ball tracking system etc.

The latest of these advanced technologies debuted during NBC’s broadcast of a NY Giants v Dallas Cowboys American Football game in September 2013 and is now also used in a number of sports, particularly baseball. This is the 360-degree instant replay that uses what is termed freeD (freeDimension) technology developed by Replay Technologies.1 Using a linked system of 24 cameras, freeD allows three-dimensional images that can be spun 360 degrees in any direction creating so-called "bullet time" footage — nicknamed for Keanu Reeves' bullet-dodging scenes in the movie "The Matrix". It is envisaged that eventually such replays will be able to be streamed in close to real time and that viewers will have their own joystick that will permit TV spectators to choose their own replay perspective.

360 degree cameras are already being used for game adjudication, particularly in Major League Baseball (MLB), as both the NFL and MLB allow a limited number of challenges by the coach in respect of umpiring decisions. 


From illistrative to adjudicative use

In the first instance however, these broadcasts were purely illustrative – providing images enabling the public to follow the play: originally through for example, black and white news reels of past events followed by “live” transmissions that became increasingly sophisticated.

Increasingly however, film and video recording began to be utilised for adjudication. Perhaps, surprisingly, the photo finish has been used in the Olympics since as early as1912, when theStockholmOlympics used a camera system for the athletics events. However, a rudimentary photo-finish electronic-timing system was only used as a back-up to the hand-held judges' stopwatch. That is, the timing was not fully automatic and only in the 1,500 metres final was it necessary to separate the athletes finishing 2nd and 3rd by means of a photo finish.

Photo finishes

As with TV replays, the technology has come a long way since then – horse racing in Britain has used photo finishes since 1947 and the whole race has been filmed and then videoed since the early 1960s. The London Olympics in 1948 marked the advent of modern photo-finish time-keeping at the Games but the 1952 Helsinki Olympics were the first Games to employ photo-finish cameras that could record athletes' times and it wasn’t until in 1968, at the Mexico City Olympics, that the photo-recording technology would officially become the determining factor for all track and field events. Currently, the latest photo-finish cameras (the OMEGA Scan'O'Vision Star camera) can take up to 2000 images each second and are capable of measuring time to one half of a millisecond.


From objective to subjective decisions

While the use of developing technologies to help determine entirely objective decisions (i.e. who finished first) was uncontroversial, the use of video replays during play to assist officials took longer to take hold. The National Football League (NFL) in the United States introduced a limited instant replay system in 1986 but the system was abandoned in 1992 because of the time it took for disputes to be reconciled and a view that it overly questioned the referee’s integrity.

Anecdotally, it seems that similar problems befell the original introduction of video adjudication into rugby league. It was introduced into Australia by the breakaway Super League in 1997 – perhaps not all that surprising since that league was the creation of a TV broadcast network. National Hockey League has used a video system to confirm goal scoring since 1991 and cricket began using replays to adjudicate on catches and run outs in 1992.

Most other major sports have followed suit in the previous 10 years with many (including, tennis, cricket, the AFL and the GAA) adopting the Hawk Eye2 RTD (reconstructed track device) technology. The NFL re-introduced a video review system in 1999 bringing with it the opportunity for coaches to “challenge” on-field calls in order to send them for video adjudication. Rugby Union began its video review system in 2001 which initially limited the TMO only to adjudicating issues that arose during the act of scoring expanding those powers in the 2013 season.

Replicating its increasing admission as evidence in the courts of law, video images have also been employed by sports disciplinary bodies to aid post-match deliberations evaluating the accuracy of officials during the game as well as support or defend charges of foul play arising from games. Those videos are routinely considered demonstrative evidence and perform a role well beyond being purely illustrative. Moreover, the admissibility of video evidence as supporting evidence in sporting (disciplinary) tribunals never appears to be questioned.

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Craig Dickson

Craig Dickson

Craig Dickson is a senior lecturer in the Law School at AUT University in Auckland where he teaches Sports Law as part of the regular undergraduate LLB electives and he has occasionally appeared in front of sporting disciplinary tribunals. After obtaining an LL.M. at the Centre for Innovation Law and Policy, University of Toronto, he spent some years in private practice before taking up his current position. Craig’s other teaching and research interests include insurance law and intellectual property law and he was recently appointed as inaugural treasurer of the newly formed Asia-Pacific Copyright Association.

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