Can AI Replace Sports Referees?

Can AI Replace Sports Referees

Fans have long complained about the inaccuracy of human referees in sports. Is AI the answer?

Sports referees are a vital part of any game. They undergo trainings and seminars to familiarize themselves with different rules and act as a third party to assure fair play for everyone involved. However, with the advent of artificial intelligence (AI), some people wonder if this technology can eventually replace human referees altogether.  

Why referee sports with AI? 

Cut the referees some slack

It is no secret that a referee’s job is stressful. They are constantly under pressure to make the right call because even a small mistake can have major consequences. The stress can often lead to referees making poor decisions, ruining the game for everyone involved. 

This also brings forth significant mental health issues for referees, who are exposed to 640 sources of stress that may lead to mental disorders throughout their career. The major sources of stress originate from, for example, injuries and scrutiny from media and fans. Therefore, by assisting umpires and referees with AI, we can take some pressure off them by helping them make the final calls. 

Minimize human errors and controversy 

Despite regular training, referees are people, and they make errors. One of the most notorious mistakes made by referees was the judgment on the goal made by Argentinian football legend Diego Maradona in the 1986 World Cup Quarterfinals against England. Maradona punched the ball into the goal with his hands (but handball is not allowed in football) but was not given any card. The goal was eventually counted as legitimate, helping Argentina won the World Cup that year. 

Of course, we don’t entirely rely on referees on whether a goal stands. There are technological aids in place currently to minimize referees’ misjudgment by detecting penalties that are otherwise too difficult to catch. For instance, the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) advocated Goal-Line Technology, an electronic aid to determine if a goal is in or not, with the support of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) to prevent wrong decisions made by referees.

However, many cast doubt on whether VAR is 100 percent accurate. When people look through VAR from multiple angles or perspectives, slight errors may occur when referees are to call the handball penalty, as there is no standardized definition on whether a handball is “deliberate”. 

In consideration of human errors, AI may be a favorable recourse for these controversies by conducting comparative judgment. It can be done by collecting a few controversial plays in football and decide whether it should be a penalty or not. This method, though still not implemented, is believed to help reduce controversies in football. 

Downsides of AI referees: disrupt the flow of games

When people are grudging about referees’ inaccurate officiating, some people are still reluctant to embrace the advantages of using AI referees. Although blown calls and missed fouls may be avoided with the assistance of AI, the game would become less smooth if every foul or violation was called. National Basketball Association (NBA) star Kevin Durant emphasized his concern that the intensity of the game may be disrupted by every little foul AI referees call because they stick to the rules with crazy accuracy. 

Additionally, even though the sports industry has been rigged by referees over the years, Durant still prefers human judgment, as it is the best way to avoid petty calls. More importantly, players can argue with human referees for bad calls, while robot referees cannot interact with players besides calling fouls and penalties.

With more petty fouls called, AI referees would possibly foul out (when players commit six personal fouls in a game of 48 minutes) more NBA players each season in the name of perfect accuracy. Therefore, the game will be less spectacular when players are bound with fouls without any possible contact and intensity when fouls are called time after time. From players’ perspectives, their objection to AI referees also sounds reasonable. 

Still, at the end of the day, AI refereeing is definitely an innovative invention to replace human referees for the sake of accuracy. While the concerns with AI referees are reasonable, it still brings loads of possibilities for developers to modify and make it function more efficiently. If this is the case in the future, the referees will not take such a long time to review Benzema’s offside goal against Liverpool FC through VAR when millions of anxious fans are waiting for ages for the outcome. 

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