Sports traditionalists lament the intrusion of media technology into the officiating of their games. Some governing bodies, notably in baseball and soccer, take their side. Media studies scholar Markus Stauff argues that technological advances have been an integral part of modern sports since their emergence in the 19th century. In the first of a three-part series of essays on technology and officiating, he looks at how the interplay of referees, spectators, and mass media – all with their different perspectives on the action – have made new technologies necessary to ruling the game.   

zidane media

“If the officials haven’t seen it, they can’t call it.”


Some weeks ago, Wired magazine reported on the first professional baseball game umpired by technology. Human umpires were behind home plate and on the bases for the game in the Pacific Association, an independent minor league, but strikes and balls were determined by video tracking technology. Major League Baseball likely would be hesitant (if not outright antagonistic) toward such an experiment. Similar to European soccer authorities, MLB is quite conservative with respect to the use of technology. However, the game at the small stadium in San Rafael, California, can be seen as a logical step in the history of sports, one that is much less revolutionary than the hashtag #robotumpirerevolution might suggest.

The history of modern sports, from the middle of the 19th century onwards, is a story not only of ever intensifying entanglement with mass media but also of constant technical upgrading in the ways games are officiated. Even more, these two threads are interwoven in a complex (and often conflicting) manner.

On the one hand, the authorities of modern sports in the 19th century sought both to guarantee a “level playing field” and to compare performances beyond local competitions. These two aims resulted in a constant push to standardize the ways that performances were quantified and to keep athletes accountable to uniform rules. Referees were added and given an arsenal of devices – lines on the field, flags, whistles, stopwatches – to increase the transparency of the competition and the reliability of decisions and results.

At the same time, modern sports developed as spectator events. The audience literally added different perspectives to the game, as members of the crowd, being positioned at various places and distances, judged the competition on the basis of their specific lines of sight. Referees adapted to the fact that they were being observed and used hand signs, red and yellow cards, and loudspeakers to communicate on-field decisions to the athletes and the broader audience. Yet, considering fans’ different perspectives of the action and their partisanship, they still could not be expected to agree with the referee’s calls.

Sports coverage in mass media contributes even more to the audience’s ability to see things differently – and sometimes better – than the referee. The camera adds another perspective on the game, one that is often more enhanced and precise than the referee’s vision. Decisions on the field now are not only questioned but also often proven wrong. The governing bodies of sports have attempted to support the sovereignty of referees by censoring media footage. According to Benjamin Rader’s 1984 study of sports on television, In Its Own Image, already in the 1930s baseball officials forced radio commentators to “refrain from questioning the decisions of umpires.” A similar intervention happened again in 1970, when the International Football Association Board, the body that determines the Laws of the Game for world soccer, asked television companies to avoid showing any video replay that might lead viewers to question a referee’s decisions.

The endeavor to ban certain images didn’t succeed. Media companies set their own standards of visible evidence, which the sports organizations, being dependent on media, could not ignore. All participants in sports – governing bodies, players, coaches, referees – became embedded in the broader development of what cultural studies scholars call the media ecology: the interdependent ensemble of various technologies, practices afforded by those technologies, and ideas related to their capabilities. This media ecology applies not only to the referee’s ruling of the game. Athletes and coaches also have to adapt constantly to the competing and different visibilities of modern sports. One such adaption is the awkward practice of coaches and players speaking to each other with hands or clipboard in front of their mouths (so that television’s lip-readers cannot decode the communication). Of course, players also show off wounds or tumble dramatically to signal that they were defended unfairly. Television images and especially slow-motion replay easily betray them as cheesy actors. In one famous instance from the 2002 World Cup, the Brazilian player Rivaldo pretended to be hit on his head by a ball kicked from an opponent as he was waiting to deliver a corner. After Rivaldo fell down, holding both hands to his face, the Turkish player who had kicked the ball to him was sent off with a red card. The replay, however, clearly disclosed that the ball had only struck Rivaldo’s hip. With video replays now revealing such deceptive performances, soccer leagues and federations are trying to take a firm stand against diving. Similarly, the NBA has started punishing players for flopping, either during the game or afterward, if proven by video replay.

Most vulnerable to the transformations of the media ecology has been the on-field official’s ruling of the game. As said, there have been many improvements and technical enhancements of refereeing to make the comparison of performances as precise and as transparent as possible. However, visual evidence of blundered calls continues to put pressure on referees and increases demands for even more technological upgrading in the way games are officiated. While most sports have integrated some technical support for the referees, the balance between referee authority and the mass media visibility remains a tricky issue. The rules of most sports describe what kinds of media and technology are allowed for the ruling of the games and which are not. At the same time, one of the defining characteristics of media and sport is that any clear distinction between the authority of human referees and the use of technology is constantly undermined, especially since media entered the stadium itself and became a real-time competitor to the referees. Video screens and slow-motion replay no longer compete with the referee from outside of the game, setting a standard of visibility that might or might not be adapted by the official bodies of sports. Rather, screens are now omnipresent in the sports arena, so that it is a tricky question of how not to allow media interference with official procedures and approved technologies of ruling (and playing) the game.

A decisive step in this development was the installation of huge screens in stadiums, showing live images and replays as the game is underway. Athletes continuously look up at the screens – to check the action (and to check their hair). There also have been many examples when athletes used these screens to see the positions of their opponents. When Jacoby Jones of the Baltimore Ravens made a 109-yard touchdown in the 2013 Super Bowl, he watched the Jumbotron for nearly half his run to monitor how close behind his chasers were. That use of technology in the game is not disallowed – in fact, it would be impossible to keep athletes from watching the screens in a stadium. Yet referees must withstand the temptation of taking into account available media when making their decisions. After Zinedine Zidane’s notorious headbutt in the 2006 men’s World Cup final, there was controversy over whether the fourth official, who claimed to see the foul, actually saw the headbutt as it happened or watched the replay on a sideline TV monitor. In 2009, when a referee in a Confederations Cup match changed his decision from a corner kick to penalty after seeing the replay on a monitor, FIFA ordered the removal of video monitors from the sideline.

Sports authorities are always running behind, trying to fix the leaks in their rules binding use of media during competition. The need to make sports (the action and the decisions) comprehensible to a broader audience and the unavoidable presence of mass media images make this tension unavoidable. Despite its conservatism, FIFA finally conceded to using media technology, if in a very restrained manner, for the men’s World Cup in 2014. One of the events that convinced FIFA to apply goal-line technology came during a match in the 2010 World Cup, when a shot by English player Frank Lampard hit the goal bar, caromed down behind Germany’s goal line, bounced back up to the bar, and from there dropped to the field in front of the line where the goalie finally caught it. TV images clearly showed that the ball was fully behind the line when it hit the ground, but the referee did not call it a goal. The moment triggered references to a similar controversial goal, also in a match between England and Germany, in the final of the 1966 World Cup. Because the photographic and television equipment of that time could not capture high-resolution images of the ball hitting the goal line, and because the television camera had an angular position relative to the goal, the images do not give final evidence. In that case, media technology has simply allowed for endless discussion about whether the England goal was indeed a goal. But now, the development of television technologies forces sports entities to re-think and adapt their media regime of refereeing.

The new goal-line technology seems quite reliable and, important for soccer traditionalists, doesn’t destroy the flow of the game. Still, its first use during the 2014 World Cup came with a minor turmoil. In the France-Honduras game during the group stage, Karim Benzema’s shot bounced off the Honduras post, flew alongside the goal line, and then was deflected over the line by the goalkeeper. The goal-line technology first judged the initial shot against the post, announcing “no-goal,” before it then correctly judged the deflection as “goal.” The computer-generated images were displayed on the Jumbotrons in the stadium and on the live television feed, so the audience saw the first “no-goal” judgment after having seen the ball clearly behind the chalk line. In the end, there was no disagreement about the goal, but for a few seconds the competing perspectives of the referee, the audience members, and the goal-line technology shown on the stadium video screen produced confusion and sudden turns of emotion. The episode shows that, while technology in many cases adds precision to the ruling of the game, it also adds to the multiplication of perspectives. Thus, technology cannot do away with differing judgments, disagreements, and controversy.

The worries (or even moral panic) invoked by the “robot umpire revolution” are not so new. Again and again, the realm of sport has cushioned itself against what is termed the “outside influence” of media and technology. There is an interesting (and often funny) insistence on the tradition of each sport, whose physical and sensual immediacy allegedly has to be protected against modernization, rationalization, and mechanization. This is in itself an astonishing argument. As most historians agree, these same sports – with their venerated traditions – developed out of the modernizing trends of the 19th century and integrated from the start such features of modernity as quantified comparison, systematic and specialized physical training, capitalist enterprise, and – certainly not least of all – serialized and national/global media coverage. It would be hard to determine what technological innovation, supposedly coming from the outside, has damaged the “traditional” properties and practices of sports, instead of becoming part of the basic technical requirements of sports. For instance, just how have sports been damaged by the slow-motion replay? Or the photo finish? Or the stopwatch?


Markus Stauff is a member of the media studies department at the University of Amsterdam. He has published many articles and essays on sport and media, and he is co-editor of the book Filmgenres: SportfilmMarkus is on Twitter at @staumar