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The End of Mike Carey, and the Twilight of Human Error

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Getty Images

Mike Carey is out as CBS’s NFL rules analyst, and we are one step closer to having robot referees.

With Carey and CBS’s “mutual agreement” to part ways, the margin for human error in and around professional officiating has shrunk even more. Last week, NBA commissioner Adam Silver defended the release of Last Two Minute reports, which detail the officiating crew’s internal review of game calls, highlighting mistakes while not affecting game results. The league’s refs have balked at making the reports public, claiming their release holds the officials to an impossible standard.

“Efforts to promote transparency have encouraged the idea that perfection in officiating is possible,” the National Basketball Referees Association argued in a statement. “Perfection is neither possible nor desirable; if every possible infraction were to be called, the game would be unwatchable and would cease to exist as a form of entertainment in this country.”

Silver has framed this as an issue of transparency and accountability: “You can’t turn back the clock on transparency,” he told ESPN’s Sage Steele.

Carey, meanwhile, was done in largely by his own mistakes. When he was hired in 2014 as CBS’s rules analyst, the network hoped his on-field experience — 24 seasons as an NFL referee — would translate into the ability to interpret challenged plays on air. It did not: Carey floundered in the position, committing a series of mistakes, including misinterpreting a Ron Rivera challenge in Super Bowl 50. Whatever his personal judgment, he had been put in an impossible spot: either repudiate his former colleagues on air, or go along with them and risk making a fool of himself.

Other networks’ rule analysts remain, notably Fox’s Mike Pereira, another former NFL official. But it’s hard not to look at the advance of technology — for example, MLB’s efforts to automate balls and strikes — and see anything but the beginning of the end for human referees.

What is the role of a ref when we all have smartphones in our pockets? This is in part what Silver means by “transparency”: By the time a challenge has been sent for instant replay, fans have watched the play repeatedly, from every angle imaginable. With the ability to see more has come ever shriller responses to blown calls, which fans are able to broadcast directly to teams, leagues, and networks via social media. Officiating errors — which are now known, with near immediacy and in excruciating detail — are not tolerated.

And who wants mistakes? On Sunday night, Brazil was eliminated from the Copa América after an obvious handball from Peru was missed by officials, who have said they made a very human mistake: They just didn’t see it.

The question becomes how long we want to continue to trust fallible human beings when we can, more often than not, know beyond a shadow of a doubt what really happened. The NBA’s referees say officiating perfection would ruin the product. It seems that networks and commissioners alike — to say nothing of fans — aren’t so sure.