Why do sportsmen argue with the officials?

Controversial decisions are always a talking point in sport. In high pressure situations it is not uncommon to see athletes caught up in the moment and argue with officials. This is the theme of our next Ask a sports engineer question.

In most games, match officials must make crucial decisions very quickly, this can have a huge impact on the development of a game. In these high pressure situations it’s no surprise that from time to time the opinion of the official and that of the player(s) will differ. Sometimes players’ outrage is justified because the officials are wrong! It is understandable that a player might be frustrated when they believe they’ve been robbed of a point/goal. Unfortunately this does occasionally lead to arguments between players and officials. Something John McEnroe was somewhat famous for:

In many sports refereeing decisions are still subjective, as most calls are made based on an officials view, memory and opinion, this makes people question the decision. Two people stood a few meters apart could perceive a very different outcome when viewing the same event, due to a phenomenon known as parallax. Parallax describes the difference in the perceived position of an object based upon viewing it from two different angles, as depicted in the image below. This makes it imperative that match officials are viewing action level with the goal-line/side-lines; otherwise they are always going to struggle to know whether the ball has crossed the line (in ball sports for example).


The introduction of technology into sport can reduce the subjectivity in decisions and provide officials with a quick, high confidence decision (see a recent article by Heather Driscoll on this very technology). This give players less reason to argue if the technology is perceived to be infallible (even though it isn’t). There are a few different technologies in use in sport to help officials. As a previous blog explained there are photo-finish technologies in races; in rugby there is a video referee used to confirm tries and cricket has started using thermal imaging to detect ball strikes on the batsman’s pads. But the most common technology is the Hawkeye system, which uses a series of cameras to recreate the motion of balls to determine whether or not a decision was correct. This technology is currently used in Tennis, Cricket and Snooker and a similar system is soon to be introduced into Soccer. The next video gives an insight into how it works:

As explained in the video, decisions can be made with a theoretical accuracy of up to 3.5mm, which is good, but is this good for everyone? This will help with getting more decisions correct, more of the time, which is good news for the players. But is this good news for the fans? After all, the major talking points from big games are often the controversial decisions and ‘what-should-have-beens’. If these are lost from sport, will the excitement/buzz be the same? Is the subjectivity part of what makes sport entertaining or would we rather know for definite that England couldn’t have won the World Cup?

About theflagfinder

Elite orienteer, postgraduate research student and all round sports fan living in Derbados.

1 Response

  1. Anonymous

    Whilst officials’ decisions do create talking points, so do those tactical decisions made by managers, and in-the-moment action/decisions made by players. Thus there will still be enough talking points for fans at the ground, and for the sporting paymasters in the media, to thrive upon.
    The culture of sports, since regulation and codification, have always had a (somewhat deluded) belief in fairness (think “level playing field”, “game of two halves”, etc) and this is just one way to continue that aspiration. If though it allows the players to feel it is their effort and skill that wins the day so much the better for the continued health of sport within the wider turmoil of pressures from the likes of gambling and off-pitch commercial rewards.

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