ROBO-REFS AND THE NBA OF THE FUTURE, PART II

In Part I, I laid out the foundation for how currently-existing hardware is capable of eliminating “flopping” from the NBA. In Part II, I’m going to look into the future at the larger implication of such technology: Robo-refs.

 
No, I don’t mean actual robots in striped shirts will be running up and down the court, although that would be awesome. What I’m saying is that there won’t be a need for any officials to be physically present on the court. I know that sounds crazy, but I’m not suggesting it’ll be an overnight change. Let’s break it down into smaller steps and see how things could progress through various phases to get from here to there.

 
We begin with the upcoming 2013-14 season. To quickly recap the discussion from Part I, the NBA is already installing banks of cameras and motion-analyzing software. The public reason for doing so is to give us access to more stats. (You could argue the league is already too stat-happy already, but that is another discussion in itself.) So, in theory, in addition to knowing how many dunks Blake Griffin had in a game, you might also know what the average jump height was for those dunks. Or when D-Will dishes to KG down low, perhaps you’ll know the speed of the pass in miles-per-hour. Or maybe we’ll see a comparison of lateral G-forces when Kobe or D-Rose cut to the right vs. cutting to the left, and have a discussion about whether either of them is favoring their previously-injured Achilles? These are just a few examples that would be tedious to calculate by hand, but which the software could track automatically.

 
That’s all well and good for the fans, but internally, how could the league use this technology? Obviously, my money is on them starting to use it to issue fines to floppers, and I expect to see that happen this season. But beyond that, the tech could be an effective way to grade the performance of the referees. No official is going to make the right call 100% of the time, but haven’t you ever wondered what percentage of the time they’re right? I guarantee the league thinks about that. I wouldn’t expect that kind of data to ever be made public, but it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to picture the NBA tracking such things behind the scenes.

 
So, if we’ve got this software analyzing every play of every game, and doing so more effectively than any human crew can manage on the court, essentially the referees are just out there for show. They become the league’s vestigial tail, a holdover from a bygone era. I don’t know how soon the NBA would eliminate human refs. But at some point the league would be paying them six-figure salaries (the numbers vary online, but the estimates are $100k – $150k for a rookie ref, with experienced pros making $300k – $550k) just to run up and down the court and do a job less effectively than the computer. When that day comes, you’ve got to wonder how they justify continuing to spend that money. Maybe they justify it as an expense to keep fans from freaking out at the sight of a game with no referees?

 
Machines replacing human jobs is not a new phenomenon, as any automotive factory worker in the past 20 years can attest, but that trend hasn’t yet reached its conclusion. Ask your favorite truck driver or taxi driver how they feel about the self-driving vehicles being developed by Google and others. If they haven’t started thinking about it yet, I promise their employers have. The first wave of self-driving cars (Nissan plans to be selling them by 2020) will require a human in the driver’s seat, but those days will be numbered, and that’ll mean thousands of obsolete human drivers.

 
So at what point do fans become okay with the idea of a computer-officiated professional sports game? If an autonomous car drives them to the arena, I don’t think they’re going to lose any sleep over whether or not there are refs on the court.

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