NFL: Could New Tech End Blown Calls?

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If you were already watching NFL games in 1986, you may remember being amazed by the new “high tech” instant replay feature that was introduced that year. What a difference 27 years can make. Today, the NFL is either using or considering adopting new technologies that will make refereeing a far more exacting job.

While to the fans watching at home new technology may appear to be used for their enjoyment, the truth is the highest tech features in the NFL may be geared more to the referees.

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“We want to get the calls right,” NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy told Discovery News. “The use of technology is always geared toward aiding the officials who are on site. But it’s important to remember we have 31 different stadiums and there are different challenges that each presents from indoor to outdoor, different lines of technology, existing stadiums and new stadiums. We spend a lot of time talking to some of the best companies in the world about this.”

That may be why some of the most highly-touted new technology has yet seen the light of day in the NFL. Hawk-Eye technology, for example, is already in use in soccer, but even though the NFL has considered the system, it's not a done deal. Hawk-Eye, developed by Dr. Paul Hawkins in the UK, involves the use of multiple cameras to track the ball.

“There is a big difference between soccer and the NFL,” said Dr. Kim Blair, founding director of MIT’s Center for Sports Innovation. “In a lot of cases in football, the ball is hidden, where in soccer it’s usually exposed. So this kind of line technology is not necessary going to work for calling plays in football.”

It won't be simple to bring 21st technology onto the field, say experts. Just because certain systems have made adjudication more accurate in one sport, doesn't necessarily mean it will do the same for the NFL. That's why league officials take their time in determining what will truly make the calls more accurate. The issue is not about the availability of the technology, because it already exists. There are even virtual reality goggles that could be used by referees to make more accurate calls. The real issue has to do with whether it would enhance the game or not.

“We have studied this type of technology,” said McCarthy. “But using it in the NFL is very different than using it in other sports, especially when you have 22 bodies moving, and a ball that is covered or might be covered by a body, as well as indoor (conditions) and outdoor weather and so many variables to consider.”