Do we need referees?

The Alex Burrows affair brings up a controversial question
Yoni Goldstein

The idea of alternative sports officiating began to seem appealing during the 2007 Tim Donaghy scandal—the NBA ref who was found to be fixing games as part of a deal with the Mob. And now, the recent Alex Burrows affair has brought the idea round again.

Burrows was fined by the NHL the other day for speaking out against NHL referee Stéphane Auger. Auger, as the story goes, allegedly penalized the Canucks winger late in the third period of a tight, tied game with the Predators last Monday as retribution for an incident earlier in the season in which Burrows took a dive (that was mistakenly called a penalty by Auger, who was also refing that game).

Burrows is right: Auger made the wrong call against him, at a critical moment in the game. And the two were seen chatting before the game (wherein Burrows claims Auger promised to “get him back” for embarrassing him earlier in the season).

No doubt this happens regularly—and not just in the NHL, but all professional sports. Refs hate having their authority questioned—and you have to sympathize to a certain extant with their soft-shelliness, they have the most thankless job in sports—and so they tend to bite back at anyone who challenges them. But refs aren’t dictators and this behaviour seriously threatens sports, for both athletes and fans.

Simple solution: get rid of them.

Tennis has already eliminated the potential biases and mistakes of referees, to a certain extent, by installing a computer system that players can use, during the course of a match, to challenge a human-made call. The machines are right all the time; humans not so much—in every match I’ve seen since the system was installed, at least one ref’s (sorry, umpire’s) call has been overruled by a computer that sees the lines of the court—and whether the ball fell within or without them—far clearer.

So it can be done. Though it’ll be harder in team sports. Computers would have a harder time discerning real infractions of holding and tripping rules than an actual human on the field of play.

So how about a counter-solution? Keep the refs, but take them off the field/rink/court. The NHL already employs officials who sit up in a booth high above the ice—they’re there to review disputed goals, but surely also know the outside-the-crease rules of the game. And they have a better view of the ice surface than the four refs who actually skate on it with the players—plus the benefit of slow-motion TV sets to review the game. Why not officiate the entire game from up there?

This works for at least two reasons: first, it gets rid of the bias problem—the players don’t need to know who’s making the call from the booth, and any potential for Burrows-Auger-style personal wars could be quelled. As an added bonus, eliminating four extra skaters from the surface would open up the game – something fans have been calling for forever.

If you can’t get rid of refs, they ought to be as unobtrusive as possible.