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Is Direct Democracy The Next Innovation In Sports Refereeing?

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

As modern adjudication technologies advance in their sophistication, we look at whether crowds can make the next big contribution in the evolution of sport.

Umpire considers HawkEye technology

If you've been following Wimbledon this summer, the sight of disgruntled tennis players calling for a Hawk-Eye challenge will almost certainly be familiar. Since 2007, the tournament has allowed participants three incorrect challenges per game, allowing them to contest the umpire's decision using state-of-the-art technology which tracks the trajectory of the ball and is accurate within 2.2 millimetres. While it isn't without controversy, this technology has been widely adopted at international tennis tournaments and is praised by official adjudication bodies.

Similarly, followers of the 2019 Women's World Cup will have seen Video-Assistant-Referee technology utilised at the tournament - perhaps to a slightly mixed reception. Many pundits have welcomed the new technology, which allows officials to consult a dedicated VAR team and video replay footage, but agree that it is still very much in its teething phase with inconsistency in its usage and frustration at its game-delaying tendencies. If there is still room to improve, where will the next innovation come from?

It has been well noted that the modern sports viewer has just as much, if not more, information about a live match than any official on the field of play. With a plethora of video angles, replays and analysis from pundits (not to mention the ability to call up archive footage for instant reference via the internet), the audience is often able to spot a refereeing error with ease and there is now enormous pressure on referees to make the correct call. Particularly in sports such as football (where the official rules are common knowledge), a group of experienced viewers will often reach the correct decision after consulting replays - making terrible decisions even more embarrassing for professional match officials.

Facing this dilemma, is there now a precedent to introduce direct democracy as the next innovation in sport?

Direct democracy (or Athenian democracy), put simply, is an extended form of democracy which allows participants the ability to vote on a wider number of specific issues. In the UK, we live in a representative democracy where we vote for a Member of Parliament for our local constituency who we then delegate political decision-making to. A recent example of direct democracy in the UK would be the 2016 European Union referendum, which allowed citizens to vote on a very specific issue which then informed government policy. How would this apply to sport?

The very basic idea would be to allow crowds viewing the game the ability to vote on each refereeing decision (or make a call if the referee has missed a foul play) and this would either inform the referee's decision or completely override it. On paper, this sounds quite simple to execute - audience members could download a smartphone app or visit a website which would allow them to vote on any match's decisions - but upon closer inspection this idea is fraught with issues.

An initial problem of impartiality emerges. With any incident during a game, there is supposedly an objectively 'correct' decision which can be made every time, with no room for ambiguous interpretation. Ask any Liverpool fan whether Moussa Sissoko's innocuous handball in this year's Champions League Final was a penalty and you can be sure that many will answer unequivocally 'yes'; Tottenham supporters will certainly feel that the offence was far more contentious.

Soccer player fouls opponent
Is this a clear-cut foul?

Fans will often struggle to overlook their loyalty when deciding to weigh-up a potential incident. While some cases are seemingly black or white ('out' calls in tennis, for example), many refereeing decisions require an interpretation of the players' intentions, which opens up the room for bias and ambiguity. Worse still, if a small team comes up against a big club in a tournament, how can the system ensure that the servers are not flooded with fans of the favourite who will be susceptible to a bias towards their side?

One solution might be to use a platform such as Kleros, an online dispute resolution system which rewards users for good decision-making and filters judges to prevent the jury being overcrowded with potentially biased users. While it may not be a perfect match for a high-speed sport such as football, where decisions need to be made in real-time, it offers us an exciting glimpse into the future of direct democracy in sport.

On a broader note, what advantages could direct democracy have in our lives? In the world of politics, it would certainly help people have a greater and more meaningful say over national policy and the opportunities to engage in politics on an everyday basis would expand enormously. But the question looms as to whether this type of intensive engagement would be necessary, not to mention practical. Many new pieces of legislature are technical and require particular expertise to digest, let alone call judgement on. The general population could 'burnout', causing turnout to decline, and corporate lobbyists would have an equal say alongside politicians, potentially putting private interests ahead of national ones.

Is there a middle ground?

In Switzerland, the country practises aspects of direct democracy through national referenda on key issues, ameliorating the danger of voters being overwhelmed with around four public votes per year. Most notably, citizens can call an optional referendum after receiving 50,000 signatures which allows them to change new laws and some international treaties, creating more opportunities for interaction and deliberation in the all-important political decision-making process.

While direct democracy has its roots in Ancient Athens, it certainly has the potential to be applied in our globalised world. With the frontiers of modern technology ever expanding, its introduction into sports refereeing could certainly be a reality. So, as you go about your week, think about where direct democracy could play a role in your life - perhaps it already does!

Blog Post Crafted by Oscar

Oscar studies Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at the University of Warwick.

When he's not studying or tutoring GCSE Maths and Science, Oscar plays saxophone and co-ordinates the Small Band division of the University of Warwick Big Band.

In 2017 he set up his own jazz function band, Mirage Quartet, and has been a keen collaborator and ambassador for Bromley Youth Music Trust.


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