Saturday, October 13, 2012

Human Elements

I wonder if 100 years ago the term "human element" was ever written or uttered.  If it was, it was almost assuredly used in a different context than it is used today.  I understand that there is a zombie-based video game called Human Element, and clearly the humans of yesteryear would not have conceived of this usage.  But the context in which I have most often heard the term used is discussions about sports officiating.  This is odd, given that there are many other contexts in which we value humanity moreso than sports officiating.  One would think that the "human element" would most often apply to customer service, or to political campaigns, or to the evaluation of effective teaching practices.  But no--the term arises whenever we debate the extent to which we will allow technological innovation to arbitrate a sports contest.

In my judgment, the term arose purely to appear to give the appearance of rational validity to a non-rational thought process.  The only reason people would choose humans over technology in this area is because they are afraid of change.  Some may be assigning a general anxiety about technological encroachment on human endeavor to this particular idiom.   I make no comment on the validity of such a general anxiety.  But I do condemn its application in this respect.  Think of what we value in an arbitrator: accuracy (the ultimate trait), imperviousness to nonrational appeals (such as when opposing coaches or crowds are condemning them), fairness, the ability to distance themselves from personal prejudices, and the ability to make quick calculations.  And think about what we condemn: emotion, personality, and error.  In short, we want them to be machines.  So there is no good reason to promote any kind of "human element," when humanity is the last thing we are looking for in a referee or umpire.

Of course, that is not to say that we don't want any "human element" in athletic competition.  We just want it from the appropriate participants--the players themselves (and to an extent, the coaches).  If there ever was such a thing as a human umpire that got 100% of his calls correct, we would be exceedingly happy.  But if a human player ever achieved 100% perfection it would be the end of that sport.  It would be a disaster.  One perfect game for a pitcher is celebrated, but if any pitcher ever got to the point where he could reliably pitch a perfect game every time out the "human element" would truly be eradicated.  We need randomness and unpredictability from our games--but it needs to come from the participants, not the judges.

But this, too, raises an interesting dynamic.  Players and coaches do not leave the human element on the field.  Knowing what we know about human beings, we should expect our sports stars (and non-stars, for that matter) to exhibit human failings away from the arena of competition.  And yet, whenever an athlete is arrested, it is considered newsworthy.  A story broke in the Wisconsin media last night that Franscisco Rodriguez, who pitched for the Brewers the last two years, was arrested last month on suspicion of domestic violence.  Charges are still pending.  Rodriguez wasn't expected to be back with the Brewers even before this news broke.  I'm sure that he wasn't the only person in Milwaukee County arrested on such charges last month, but he is the only one who I have read about.  It made me wonder, especially given Rodriguez's status as a de facto ex-Brewer, if someone who had pitched for the team five years ago had been arrested last month, would we have found out?  How about someone who had pitched for the team 20 years ago?

I'm not suggesting the story shouldn't have been reported.  Clearly, the public has an interest in knowing about such things.  But I am suggesting that the public shouldn't have an interest.  There should be a line drawn between the human element that we need to be on display, and the human element which does not bear upon the spectacle of competition.  It should be noted that this probably would be a net loss for the athlete.  He wouldn't have to worry about negative P.R., but he wouldn't stand to gain any endorsement checks, either.  But I do think it would be a net gain for the fan.  We would lose a few (false) idols, perhaps lose a few genuine role models, but we would gain the ability to root for guys without worrying about whether they were jerks.  As long as their failings are reserved for the space between the lines (preferably adjudicated by machines), we can rightly celebrate the human element.


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