April 5th 2017

Andrew Ison looks at increasing role of TV in enforcing the rules of sport

Last weekend, Lexi Thompson was cruising to victory in a major golf tournament, three shots ahead with four holes to play, when she was approached by a rules official to say that her third round score had been amended and she had received a four shot penalty after she had replaced her ball in the wrong place (by about an inch) before tapping in a short putt. Nothing had been noticed by her playing partner or the referee who accompanied her match and Lexi herself seemed unaware of what she had done. She managed to get into a play-off but lost and people have been discussing the incident ever since.

The issue focused on how the incident came to light as, not for the first time in golf, it was the result of an eagle-eyed viewer on TV. Having seen the incident, and it is clear that the ball was replaced incorrectly (leading to a two stroke penalty with an extra two strokes for entering and signing for an incorrect total), the viewer was so soon keen to ‘do the right thing’ that they sent the video to the organisers who decided to act. The right decision was made in strict legal terms but doubt remains as to the justice of it. There is no formal video review system in golf as everything rests with the players, the caddies and the referee, if there is one. Obviously, golf is a complex game played across huge spaces, often with players on their own; honesty has been integral to the game. As the great Ben Hogan said, after he was congratulated for calling a two stroke penalty on himself during a tournament: ‘You might as well congratulate me for not robbing a bank’.

Thompson was careless in her actions; as to whether or not she did it deliberately cannot be known but, considering the put was barely a foot long, it is difficult to see what benefit was to be gained by moving the ball an inch to the left. In reality, it looks like a simple mistake but it cost her the tournament; a few years ago, the rules were such that she would actually have been disqualified, so some might say she got away with it lightly. I remember Padraig Harrington being disqualified after signing for an incorrect third round score when leading a tournament about a decade ago; golf prides itself on doing things properly even if that means being harsh.

Other sports have embraced technology as a way to ensure accurate and fair decision making. Cricket has DRS, rugby has the video referee, American Football uses video on every other play, and tennis has embraced the review system; video technology is widely used in these and many other sports. Now, after years of opposition, FIFA seems ready to introduce it and the recent game between France and Spain shows how it can impact the outcome.

You don’t need much of a memory (just a bit of age) to see how significant technology could have been to passed results: Thierry Henry’s handball against Ireland, Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ (of course), Geoff Hurst’s third goal in 1966 (of course, again) and so many others. They are the focus of elation and frustration, joy and anger, in equal measure, depending on which side of the experience you found yourself. Sport has rarely been completely fair and, even with video technology, it is unlikely to see every decision being pure and accurate; to review every tackle/foul, every offside decision, every throw-in or corner, and, indeed, the pushing and pulling at every corner, would raise many challenges for the game.

On the face of it, what happened to Lexi Thompson is no different from any use of video technology in sport. But two things are different and troubling about that decision. The viewer was correct but what has it got to do with them? What role do viewers and spectators have in applying the rules and laws in any sport? Imagine the chaos at the average football match if spectators could text in with their observations…a Merseyside derby, the Old Firm, El Gran Derby? Imagine a match where goals are allowed or disallowed after the whistle or players are given retrospective yellow or red cards which come into effect halfway through the following match? Surely, the application of the laws is in the hand of the officials and if, according to the way the competition has been set up at that time, they make mistakes then so be it?

The other issue for the golfing spectator or viewer is that they do not see every shot in every match. Errors may have been made by other players which are not noticed or broadcast so that players will be subjected to inconsistent scrutiny. In tournaments like The Open, 156 players each take a little over four hours to complete a round on days one and two, giving a total of more than fifty days of golf to be watched. While it would be possible to have a team of video referees to watch every match in close-up detail, it’s hardly practical to have TV cameras on every shot of every round – and sometimes the ball is hidden in the rough or a bunker anyway. Trial by TV is far easier when there is a pitch or court clearly covered by a range of cameras – and ideally with only two teams or players.

Lexi Thompson made a mistake, broke the rules and lost. If the cameras had cut a way for a second, she would have won. If that viewer had been out making a cup of tea, she would have won anyway. If the tournament officials had been braver and said their officials missed it so, ‘Sorry but the score stands’, she would have won. Video technology is helpful when used and applied properly but all sports should look at what happened to Lexi Thompson and learn from it.

Andrew Ison

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