Should TV Viewers Determine Sports Outcomes, A-la 'The Voice'?

It's already happening. Just look at what happened to Lexi Thompson, the wunderkind of women’s golf

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Lexi Thompson hits from the eighteenth course tee box during the third round of the ANA Inspiration golf tournament at Mission Hills CC - Dinah Shore Tournament Course.
Lexi Thompson hits from the eighteenth course tee box during the third round of the ANA Inspiration golf tournament at Mission Hills CC - Dinah Shore Tournament Course. Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports / Reuters

Something rather extraordinary happened over the weekend at the ANA Inspiration women’s golf tournament in Palm Springs, California.

That might sound like an oxymoron to anyone of the opinion that “golf has too much walking to be a good game, and just enough game to spoil a good walk,” as the American novelist Harry Leon Wilson put it. But bear with me.

Here’s what happened: 22-year-old Lexi Thompson, the wunderkind of women’s golf, was playing her final round in the first major championship of the season. She was three strokes ahead of her nearest rival and was on the verge of winning the second major of her short career. Without warning, she was approached by two officials, who told her that she was being penalized for a rule infringement that occurred the day before, and that four strokes would be added to her score.

Thompson was told she was being punished for placing her ball marker in an erroneous position on the 17th green during Saturday’s third round. The debate is still raging over whether the player herself was responsible for the infringement. But the main issue here is not one of crime and punishment; it’s a question of who enforces the law and who calls the shots.

Thompson was not punished for something spotted by officials from the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) – the body that runs women’s golf. Her (alleged) misdemeanor was uncovered by an eagle-eyed television viewer, who, presumably after studying replays, sent an email to the LPGA to report the crime. Tournament officials studied the complaint, concluded that it was justified and imposed the penalty.

This was not the only recent incident of television deciding the outcome of a sporting event. A week earlier, during a soccer match in Paris between the French and Spanish national teams, the refereeing team used video replays to determine whether two “goals” were scored in accordance with the rules of the game. In the first instance, Antoine Griezmann had a goal disallowed because – after consulting with his colleagues, who were studying the replays – the referee ruled that the French striker had been in an offside position when he headed the ball into the net. Later in the same game, the opposite happened: a goal that had been ruled invalid by officials on the field of play was subsequently allowed to stand by the monitor-watching referee in the stadium.

Different strokes

These are two very different incidents. The former is a case of an overzealous viewer picking up on an error by tournament officials, who – obviously embarrassed that they had overlooked the infringement in real time – were shamed into what many commentators are calling an equally overzealous response.

The second episode was more deliberate. FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, has finally bowed to pressure and is experimenting with the use of video technology to ensure that its referees get key decisions right. And, in the case of soccer refs using TV to make their calls, the decision is at least almost instantaneous; no one is going to change a decision 10 minutes after the initial call, let alone 24 hours later.

It’s one thing for professional, trained referees to use television replays to make their calls – as long as it doesn’t go the way of some North American sports by allowing the flow of the game to be ruined by constant interruptions from sideline umpires. In fact, the use of video and other technology has greatly improved some sports. No one doubts that the Hawk-Eye computer system, used to visually track the trajectory of the ball and display a record of its statistically most-likely path as a moving image, has significantly contributed to disciplines such as tennis, badminton, rugby, Gaelic football and hurling.

But the line is crossed when viewers in their homes are allowed to influence the outcome of events – even when they are totally correct.

One of the main arguments against the use of video technology in British soccer is that injustice and righteous anger are an integral part of any sports fan’s experience. Cursing out the referee is as integral to any supporter’s life as cheering one’s team on. To deny them that outpouring of outrage, that torrent of indignation, is to deny them one of the most delicious agonies a sports fan can experience.

Winston Churchill, the curmudgeonliest of leaders, once famously said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Imagine, then, what would happen if we were to entrust decisions to the average television viewer.

If we open the door to – literally – armchair referees, we will find ourselves hurtling down a slippery slope. Already, some would argue, viewers have too much power. Their voices take precedence over professionals in many areas: on shows like “America’s Got Talent” and “The Voice,” they decide the winners, not the professionals on the panel.

While he was campaigning in favor of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, then-Justice Secretary Michael Gove said that “people in this country have had enough of experts.” That was also a recurring theme in the U.S. presidential election.

When it comes to television, we need experts to call the shots. We need professional scriptwriters to decide on the denouement of their shows, not the viewing public. We need professional referees and umpires to decide whether a runner was safe. We need people who know something about carrying a tune to pick the best singer in a talent show.

New seasons for some favorites

On a happier note, last week saw the return of several much-loved TV series on HOT HBO. “Veep” is back for its sixth season (Mondays at 22.30), presumably armed with enough satirical ammunition from the first weeks of the Trump administration to last well into a seventh, eighth and ninth season. “Better Call Saul,” the best television spinoff ever, returns for a third season (Wednesdays at 22.00); and “Fargo” is also back, having once again replaced its entire cast (Thursdays at 22.00).

But for me, the highlight is the third season of Britain’s “The Trip,” showing on Sky Atlantic, in which Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play slightly fictionalized versions of themselves on culinary tours in some of the most charming countryside in Europe. In season one, the pair visited and reviewed restaurants in northern England, before moving on to Italy for the second season. Now they are taking their hilarious blend of gentle mutual ribbing, personal chemistry and eerily accurate impressions of the rich and famous to Spain.

There is something so easygoing, so familiar and so everyday about “The Trip,” which sets it apart from anything else on television these days. If you don’t have access to Sky Atlantic, you should find a way to watch it by hook or by crook. You won’t be disappointed.