Analysing the proverbial elephant known as sport: Assimilating information from a series of inherently limited perspectives

How does our role and the way in which we view sports affect how we perceive (both) the process and outcome?

Spencer Kassimir

How does our role and the way in which we view sports affect how we perceive (both) the process and outcome?


This is not the proverbial “elephant in the room” though one could argue that it’s always been one. The elephant referred to is the one being described in the story of the blind men and how it relates to perception and enforcement of laws with inherently limited information based on the position where one is placed. One blind man says the animal is like huge fans. The next like a wall. Another like a massive spike. The fourth, like a tree trunk. And finally, like a rope. The moral is that when a person does not have the ability to grasp all of the aspects of existence and/or is limited by a sense, our description is restricted by the limited amount of knowledge we are able to register and then recount.

Refereeing is very much like this and, in today’s televised game, rule/law changes are dominantly focused on the end product of a game being as entertaining to a spectator as possible. Rarely, if ever, is the ability to referee and enforce the new regulation given equal thought. When it is, it usually is given much less weight to tip the scales in making a final decision. After all, the prime focus of professional and amateur sport is about providing spectators the best experience and, subsequently, amateur players the best training to make it to a professional level of competition.

Starting in 1951, there have been a series of back and forth law changes on the distance, if any, the defensive line had to retreat to be on sides. Originally it was no yards, then five yards, then none again, three and then, in 1966, five again. Mind you, this was the last change under yardage and was entirely conducted by the New South Wales Rugby League before 1967’s introduction of limited tackles (4) in 1967. Think about how these distances, compared to today’s ten-metre retreat change the perception and ability to enforce the laws.

Back then, the defensive line originally lined up with no retreat then only had to retreat 5 yards in the past before the current standard of ten metres. The switch to the current standard of ten-metres is more than unnoticeable. Though the 10m retreat was created to open up the game and encourage more passing even though, in practice, it encouraged more first received hit-ups for quick yards. Yet, one has to wonder what impact this has to referees. The ability of a referee to hold a defensive line at five metres compared to ten while still being able to focus on the ruck and the attacking line is more than unnoticeable. 1. It is clear how much more difficult it is to see the action in the ruck from 10 metres back than five. 2. The increase of distance and shift of angle causing a change in perception, in this case, parallax, is also complicated by the fact that the referee must now cover more area to keep an eye on both the defensive line and the attack is also covers more area and does so at a greater distance. For those not familiar with the concept of parallax, it is defined as, “the effect whereby the position or direction of an object appears to differ when viewed from different positions…” In practical sport terms, what baseball umpires defined as the “strike zone” changed across the board when they stopped holding a massive padded barrier in front of them for protection because they no longer had to look over and around the cushion.” This same logical applies to where the referee must stand from in rugby league as well as all sports and aspects of life.

Having been born and raised in the US, the elephant analogy was taught to me from the perspective of football a.k.a. American gridiron (as opposed to our three-down cousins to the north in Canada).   The platoon style of play that originated and proliferated around World War 2 amplified this since it eliminated athletes from playing offense, defense, and special teams. What the offensive lineman, quarterback, halfback, fullback, wide-receiver, and tight-end see are all different and they are only playing attack. Compared with the defensive lineman, line-backer, cornerback, as well as safety, let alone the kicker and punter brings even more to the number of ways our “blind men” are able to describe the elephant. But this is only the player’s perspective.

American football has multiple referees in action

The American gridiron has evolved to be so complex that it requires seven on-field officials and even these lines can become blurred with 14 eyeballs on the field from the referee, umpire, head linesman/down judge, line judge, field judge, side judge, and back judge. Each of these individuals is charged with overseeing, interpreting, and enforcing different aspects of the game and still, many penalties and calls are missed. Still, this does not include the “calls to New York” where the footage is viewed on screen after the fact. There is on old saying that there is holding on every play so, as an offensive lineman, it is not about not holding but rather, not getting caught. Even still outside of the black and white rules of the game, there is then a whole arena of grey zones. For example, when does a receiver become a runner and how do we know? This was the prevailing issue last season for the Philadelphia Eagles even before the Super Bowl; one has to wonder why each led to different results. However, grey-zones aside, when a new law or interpretation is enacted, assuming it is clear and requires no assumption of a player’s intent, how many match officials does it take to make sure it is enforced?

The answer is different for each sport and even changes between different divisions and countries at the same level of competition simply based on national borders. Such is the case in rugby league where Super League and lower divisions in Australia have only one referee with two touch judges whereas top level have two of the former. Having accepted that even with seven officials that still do miss calls in American gridiron, what is the impact of the extra referee in Australian rugby league? Are more calls being made correctly by having the extra pair of eyes or is it like being an extra touch judge that, at many times, unbeknownst to the crowd, has seen an infringement but, based on the limited powers and visibility to the referee(s) from the sideline, frequently go unnoticed? Are we achieving the goal with two referees in light of the greater difficulty to take in, decipher, and act on the even greater amount of information that a referee takes in since we dropped back to ten metres? In bringing this back to the point, is the elephant known as rugby league being described in a greater level of completeness from an officiating perspective and, if so, is it being put into practice? Like the American gridiron, the above does not include reviews from the additional official charged with reviews on screen a.k.a. the bunker.

Having been exposed to Australian rules, rugby league, and rugby union at 16 years of age, thankfully due to channel surfing at 11pm on a Thursday, it is fascinating that these oval ball football codes have such starkly different interpretations even with respect to terms that most would believe are completely not open to interpretation. What is considered a catch in American football when going out of bounds is different whether one is playing high school/college or NFL and all of these differ with the interpretation of the AFL (Australian Football League). Simply put, the tail of the elephant has been described but is it a rope, a whip, or snake? Even if we are to assume that it is a rope, for what purpose does it have? Pulling, tying, lassoing?

The great Soviet Expressive Realist film director Sergei Eisenstein once said, “you should not pursue analogies and similarities too far – they lose their conviction and charm and begin to sound garbled or contrived.” Fearing I have overstepped this boundary, the analogy still holds water and, as those examining sport, it is crucial to ask ourselves the question, what part of the elephant of our chosen sport have we been focusing on and how can we look to the other parts of this massive beast.

Spencer Kassimir

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