Technology in Sport: Justice vs Drama

Day 3 of the Fifth Ashes Test between Australia and England:

  • Alastair Cook on 99 not out. Michael Beer bowls and Philip Hughes takes a low catch at short leg. Out.
  • Ian Bell on 67 not out. Watson bowls and Bell nicks a catch to Haddin. The umpire raises his finger. Out.

Except both men called for a TV review and both were successful. Cook went on to make 189 and Bell 115.

Without those 138 runs, England would be on 350, only 70 ahead of Australia’s first innings score, instead of being more than 200 runs ahead. Those reviews mean this series is over: England will win the Ashes.

Is This A Good Thing?

Not England winning the Ashes, of course that’s a good thing – but is the use of technology in sport always a good thing?

Technology in sport is a controversial subject. India are currently refusing to play with a referral system in their series against South Africa. But that kind of stand is the exception: the use of technology is widespread at the highest level in cricket, rugby and tennis. It is currently being tested for use in football.

But who’s driving the change? Do we really need technology? Who is it for?

These are questions that get to the bottom of what sport is and what it is for. Here are my observations:

1. Technology is only used at the top level of sport

During the 2010 Ashes, at least 99.93% of people were spectators, not participants (33,000 average daily attendance at the Ashes, 22 players – not including the millions of people like me listening on the radio or watching on TV).

  • Therefore the injustice of a wrong decision is only directly felt by a tiny minority of people involved in the sport. Of course fans are passionate about their team – but so are the opposing fans. We cancel each other out.
  • And therefore the purpose of the sport is not to be just to the players, but to entertain the overwhelming majority of people involved in the spectacle: the spectators.

2. Technology is used to correct bad decisions by the officials

These bad decisions could be the result of incompetence, the extreme difficulty of making the decision or dishonesty (throwing the game one way or another).

  • Sport has an integrity that should be protected. Dishonesty of all kinds, at all levels, should be policed.
  • Therefore technology can play a part in protecting the sport from outside manipulation.

3. There is often still an element of human judgement required

Take the Bell ‘dismissal’ last night. The review pictures was inconclusive so the umpire on the field had to make a judgement call. He decided to change his decision and gave Bell not out. In fact, a technology unavailable to the umpire, the snickometer, appeared to show that Bell had nicked it and should have been given out.

  • Therefore, even with technology, wrong decisions are still made.

So Why Use Technology?

Given these observations, before using technology in sport, we should ask ourselves the following questions:

1. Given the fact that most of the people involved in the sport are spectators, watching for their entertainment: does the technology add or detract from the drama of the spectacle?

2. Given the fact that the integrity of sport should be protected and that technology can be used to monitor the decision-making of officials: are the officials at risk from outside manipulation (i.e. match fixing)?

3. If wrong decisions are possible, is “justice” still a valid argument for using the technology?

The Logical Conclusions

I expect a lot of people will disagree with these, but hey! This is what logically follows from the statements predicated above.

1. If technology doesn’t add drama for fans: don’t use it

The only people to benefit from the limited justice it provides are the players and the purpose of their sport is to entertain, not to be fair to the participants.

2. Use video replays after the event to monitor sport integrity

Football has the right balance at the moment. (2019: Oh shiiiiit…*) The FA use television reviews after the game to ensure the integrity of the game by punishing players who got away with offences during the match, or by striking out unfair punishments.

This not only protects the integrity of the sport, but also means that the players (who are, after all, professionals) get fair treatment from their employers. What happens on the field, however, is entertainment. They still get paid, whatever happens.

After the event reviews can also be used to check up on the integrity and capability of officials. There’s nothing wrong in trying to make sporting officials better at their job.

3. If technology increases the drama of the spectacle: use it!

Tennis is, by nature, a very stop-start sport and the Hawk-Eye review system is arguably quite exciting for spectators. So use it, by all means.

But remember that justice has very little to do with it. The Hawk-Eye review system is 75% drama and perhaps 25% justice.

Why? Not only can the technology (occasionally) be incorrect or unhelpful, but players are also only allowed three incorrect challenges. I understand this is to stop abuse of the system, but this rule doesn’t match the idea of “justice” in the real world. If you have been correctly convicted at trial for theft three times, it doesn’t mean you should be jailed without trial for a fourth theft.

I think the jury is still out on whether the review system in cricket is a good thing or not. Cricket, like tennis, is also a stop-start game, but almost ALL of its drama is compressed into those moments when the umpire raises his finger and gives a batsman out. The review system takes that drama away as soon as the batsman calls for the big screen.

And that’s a real shame for the spectacle, even if England have profited recently!

* UPDATE, October 2019: Football has totally screwed things up with VAR. There is no aspect of its implementation that is satisfactory for the game, according to my logic.

The only fair (to players, referees and fans) use of technology in football is the use of goal-line technology, where the decision is (more or less) black-and-white and (more or less) immediate.

Every single other decision in football is your interpretation of various shades of grey: ultimately, it’s an opinion, even offside. All that VAR has done is add another layer of disagreement, while stripping the immediate drama and enjoyment from the game.

For what it’s worth, James Milner agrees with me.

Published by


David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at

6 thoughts on “Technology in Sport: Justice vs Drama”

  1. On review I have decided to dismiss this article.

    Cook. At no stage given out. And it was the conferring umpires who asked for the review.

    Bell. HotSpot showed no contact. Under the rules of the game, that’s conclusive evidence, so the umpire was forced to reverse his decision. It was not “inconclusive” and the umpire did not make a “judgement call”.

    (The real controversy here is whether HotSpot is dependable enough to be enshrined in the rules; on this occasion, Snicko suggests not.)

    Finally, football. You didn’t mention that the FA only use reviews for incidents *they believe the ref has missed*. Some players DO get away with serious offences. Check Tom Huddlestone’s studs vs Johan Elmander’s tender parts earlier this season. Ref only gave a foul; no retrospective punishment.

    I like most of your other articles :oP

  2. Lol!

    1. I didn’t say Cook had been *given* out (if you read carefully – I just described how it looked). The point is the technology was used, no matter who called for it. If the technology wasn’t available he would have been given out or he would have been given not out. Immediately. Drama.

    2. Under the rules of the game HotSpot not showing anything *isn’t* conclusive evidence, hence why it was thrown back to the umpire on the field. He could have stuck with his original decision (as the TMS chaps said he should have done for reasons of umpire-autonomy…)

    3. Fine. Point is they do use reviews ex post, which I think is a good thing for the integrity of the sport. Maybe they should go further, as you are implying. Maybe they shouldn’t. If anything your comment reinforces the point I make that mistakes will still occur with the use of technology. There has to be a line drawn somewhere.

    4. You’re not dismissing this article at all; you have said nothing about the conclusions! This was supposed to be a post about the purpose of technology in sport, not a specific comment on its use in the Ashes yesterday.

    5. So what do you think about the idea that technology should only be used when it adds drama to the sport, and not when it takes it away?

  3. (Well said Mr Sfax.)

    You’ve been caught flashing hopeless on your off-side when you should have just left it alone and you’ve clearly created at least one hot-spot.

    I essentially disagree, as predicted.

    “Therefore the injustice of a wrong decision is only directly felt by a tiny minority of people involved in the sport. Of course fans are passionate about their team – but so are the opposing fans. We cancel each other out.” – 11 players each side cancel each other out too, so on that arguement injustice is a zero-sum game. So a game could be widely unjust and that would still be fine…

    “And therefore the purpose of the sport is not to be just to the players, but to entertain the overwhelming majority of people involved in the spectacle: the spectators.” – As somewhat of a sporting connoisseur (oh yes) I am far more entertained by a display of great technical expertise than I am by the ‘thrill’ of bad decision by a third party.

    The age old “Technology is only used at the top level of sport” soundbite – so are: top level training facilities, bespoke equipment, sports psychologists, prostitutes – that does not mean their presence is to the detriment of the sport. Plenty of other example of disparities – at Wimbledon if you play on Centre court you have 10 line judges, on Court Four you would have 5. You don’t see many people campaigning to remove a few line judges from Centre Court to boost the entertainment!

    I assume we all agree?

  4. You miss the point slightly with your criticisms…

    1. The difference between the fans and the players is that it’s the players’ job. They “deserve” justice because it’s their career on the line. A game could be widely unjust and still be entertaining, yes.

    2. Firstly, you only (usually) know it’s a “bad decision” because of the technology. Secondly, the technology only (usually) comes into play for very marginal decisions, so the technical expertise has *not* necessarily been “great”. I’d argue that the official is not a third party as well. He/she is part of the game, whether you like it or not.

    3. I was only using the “Technology is only used at the top level of sport” soundbite to make the point that the majority of people involved are spectators, not players. I take your point, but it is irrelevant to what I’m saying. If it *was* used in club tennis, then it would clearly be there for the benefit of the players and only the players. But it isn’t (yet?), so its purpose should be first and foremost to entertain. That’s what I’m saying.

    4. So you want perfect (or as close as) decisions in sport? Like Matt Prior’s out, in, out last night? Pointless and boring, I’d say.

    I assume we all disagree!

  5. I agree! With the first half of point 4. I want decisions to be close to perfect, or at least I want there to be very few very clearly bad decisions. (Matt Priors Out, In, Out last night was very marginal so it got reviewed and an informed decision was made, both teams accepted it. Good.)

    Removing very bad decisions means the focus can be on the ability of the participants and the intensity of the contest, which is where the real entertainment comes. Darts. No rule interpretation problems, just two atheletes going head to head, pure drama. Bullseye.

  6. But you can’t just “remove” bad decisions. You have to stop the game, go back, look at the decision, see if it was bad or not, reverse the decision or not and *then* get on with the game.

    Boring! Atrocious decision are all part of the drama! Technology should be used only to increase the drama also! I’m happy to exchange dramatic atrocious decisions for dramatic appeals to technology, but otherwise leave it out.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.