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Pacquiao Fight Raises Questions About Sports Calls


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

Last Saturday night, Manny Pacquiao moved quicker across the ring in Las Vegas, landed more punches than Timothy Bradley and many more heavy blows. Fans, experts, the TV commentators all agreed the man widely considered the best boxer in the world dominated the fight. And then the judges shocked everyone, and Pacquiao's amazing seven-year win streak was over. Controversial decisions are hardly new to boxing or to sports in general.

This weekend, Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine complained about ball and strike calls and called for computers to take over behind home plate in baseball, which raises the question: If the technology is available, should we take the human element out of umpiring and refereeing and scoring? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also find us on Twitter, @TOTN. NPR's Mike Pesca joins us now from our bureau in New York. Hey, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hello. How are you?

CONAN: And how outrageous was this decision?

PESCA: Yeah, on a scale of one to 10, 9.5, I'd say. Wikipedia, I think they were quoting an AP article, summarized 52 ringside observers, mostly people who know a lot about fights and have covered a lot. Of the 52, three thought that Manny Pacquiao had won, only one of the 52 thought - yeah, thought that Pacquiao had won. Only one of the 52 thought that Bradley had beaten Pacquiao by the same margin in which it say two points that the judges did. It was all but unfathomable into this maw. This is what human beings do. We try to explain it.

But with boxing, the quick jump to it might have been a conspiracy, it might have been a fix, seems a little more plausible than with other sports. It's just simply inexplicable when you go back and watch that fight, say, round seven, which was a round that just - it wasn't an exceptional round, but I don't know how anyone could think that Manny Pacquiao didn't win the round. All the judges gave it to Bradley. I didn't get it.

CONAN: And boxing - at least in this country, professional boxing is scored, as you suggest, on the basis of who won the round, and usually it's a one-point difference unless there's a knockdown.

PESCA: Right. So the difference with boxing and other sports is if there was a baseball game between the Red Sox and the Yankees and the Red Sox scored one in the first and then the Red Sox scored two in the second but then the Yankees scored eight in the third, if they were scoring that baseball game like a boxing game, the Yankees would win because - sorry, the Red Sox would win...

CONAN: The Red Sox would win.

PESCA: ...because they had won two out of the three rounds. And it's not illogical, I understand. You make every round of the fight a little bit of a different contest, and that's fine. I guess the big flaw is, and this will come back with everything we talk about, television, how we see the fight. We, the viewer, often have - we definitely have a different view, and really, we often have a better view than those people watching in real time. And the other thing, the other difference between boxing and all the other sports, in the other sports, umpires run to the right place to position themselves well.

And when Jim Joyce blew the perfect game up in Detroit, there was some thought that he wasn't in the right position, and there was a debate over that. But in boxing, the judges are stationary, and they're only on three sides of the ring. So we in - at home are watching the best angles that the director chooses, and we're also watching slow-mo between rounds. We really get to see what happened. In boxing, judges will admit, look, if a great punch happens and the fighter's back is to us and we're blocked, we have no chance of seeing it.

That's why we have three judges. It's a flawed system. I'd say, maybe for a big fight, since a ring is square, have four judges and maybe a fifth watching the TV feed. That might be an improvement. It seems like boxing is really stuck in the 1950s on this.

CONAN: Did the judges come out and explain the inexplicable?

PESCA: Two of the three judges did, and they didn't shed any light on the decision, although they didn't, you know, dig themselves into a ridiculous hole. Some - after a '99 fight between Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield, there was one judge who said something like, well, I just think Holyfield landed more punches. I mean, that's quantifiable. I mean that fight, Holyfield did not land more punches. The judges just said things like, I thought Bradley took the fight to Pacquiao. I thought he put on a boxing clinic.

Bradley was a bit more aggressive. And if you wanted to go and find some evidence at the time, what I did was I looked up the boxing writers who were live blogging the fight because afterwards, you know, there's a little bit of groupthink, and we retroactively think that this was the worst decision ever. Well, at the time, what were people saying? And most of the live bloggers were saying this is a Pacquiao fight easily.

But a couple of writers, like Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated, said, you know, Bradley is being a bit more aggressive in this fight, and Vegas judges like the aggressor. Well, you know, he proved to be prescient on that.

And there's another really interesting thing, that the one commentator who thought that Bradley had won the fight by the highest margin was actually doing play-by-play for Top Rank, which isn't what we saw, but what some overseas client saw. And he was - he's a former ESPN guy named Brian Kenny. And he just thought that Bradley won the fight. And when you watch that feed of the fight, where the guy narrating the whole thing thinks Bradley's ahead, it does change your perception ever so slightly, because the HBO guys were on board with the vast majority of observers saying this is a clear Pacquiao domination.

CONAN: There is - you mentioned counting the punches. After howls of protests over bad decisions at the Olympic Games, they changed the scoring system there, and it is now on who's landed the most punches.

PESCA: Yeah, and that's really an imperfect system. And that really stems from one fight. In the '88 Seoul Olympics, Roy Jones, Jr. got absolutely robbed, jobbed and anything, any other word.

CONAN: (unintelligible)

PESCA: Yeah. It was an awful decision. Anyway, I think we still remember him, you know, standing in the ring saying: What happened? So they went to - their solution, I think, is a bit worse, where if three judges press a button and say, yeah, that was a legitimate punch, the fighter gets a point. Well, not all punches are made equally, and sometimes great punches can be missed by a judge. So, often, we have a little clinic where one guy will tap the other guy a bunch of times - and I understand amateur boxing is different from pros - but if you tap a guy a few times versus if he get hit really hard, the tapper's going to win an amateur boxing fight under those rules.

CONAN: Then we get to a sport like baseball. A replay is going to be of limited use in boxing. There's not enough time between the rounds to go back and review it for the judges, and that's the way it is. There's only a minute between rounds. So in baseball, we're seeing more and more - the use of a video replay for umpires.

And it was - just over the weekend, Bobby Valentine, the manager of the Red Sox - the last-place Red Sox - after they had a tough time, was complaining about ball and strike calls and says, we have computers now who could do this. The umpires admit they can't see the ball the last five or six feet. Why don't we get computers to call balls and strikes?

PESCA: Yeah, it seems like baseball twists - and Bobby Valentine is a guy who will allow himself to be pilloried and puts himself out there and has a reputation for thinking he's smarter than everyone else. The truth is, he might be.

Baseball seems to twist itself up in its justifications for not embracing some technology. I would think that the number one ideal is to get calls right, is that people go to baseball games and like the game because if a runner beats the throw by half a foot, that runner gets to stay on base. People don't high-five each other because the umpire got it wrong, but it's a human being getting it wrong. Yay, humans.


PESCA: We do care about humans in baseball, but they're the ones in uniform swinging the bats and fielding the balls. I think the umpires are - they have a role to play, but the technology has just progressed to a point. There's a limited embrace. We look at it for homeruns. We, you know, sometimes there'll be a consultation. In the NBA, for instance, sometimes there'll be a consultation on out-of-bounds plays.

CONAN: Or was his foot on the three-point line and stuff like that.

PESCA: Right, three-point line. They'll be that. But there's so much technology, and we're all experiencing the game via technology. So there's a gap between what the fan is experiencing and where - and what the traditions of the game are. And since the technology is getting better and better, and since HDTV is getting better and better, it seems real - sticking our head in the sand not to do some embracing, get more calls right, especially with a game like baseball where there's so much time between plays.

There's just a very limited downside to using it. I heard Joe Torre, who's in-charge of these decisions, which - with Major League Baseball. He said he was in favor of using it. And some people made some arguments to him that he thought were convincing, but I didn't think were convincing. Like, he said that, well, if there's - if you use technology, if you use a replay to judge a foul ball, where do you put the runners afterwards? If the umpire calls it foul, the runners might start running. That's not a great argument, I don't think.

I mean, on a ground rule double, there are rules about where to put the runners. And wouldn't any offensive player rather have a foul ball called fair, even if it means your conservative with the placement of the runners and you don't get a guy - put a guy on third when maybe he would have only been on second? I don't think there's such a strong argument against using replays for foul and fair.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the discussion: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Our guest is NPR's Mike Pesca. And Larry joins us from Los Gatos, in California.

LARRY: Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

LARRY: Good. It always makes me laugh when I hear the argument about the human error, you know, that we - it's the human error that we want. And I wonder...

CONAN: It's usually human element, but yeah.

LARRY: Excuse me, human element. And I wonder how these people would feel if when they go to the game, if their ticket to park was denied because of the human element, if they got a cold, undercooked hot dog, a warm, flat beer, if they were told, no, this ticket is no good for this seat, all because of the human element. I say, get it right. And the umpires are unable to call balls and strikes. Whitey Herzog, a former manager, had a great line when asked after a particularly egregiously bad called game to comment on the umpires, and he said, well, it's a good thing they only have two decisions to make.


CONAN: Get it right. Well, here's a story we just got from the Associated Press, this by Dave Skretta, the AP sportswriter: One of the boxing's major sanctioning bodies will review Timothy Bradley's controversial split-decision victory over Manny Pacquiao, the first step toward what promoter Bob Arum hopes will be clarity in judging of the fight. WBO President Francisco Paco Valcarcel said in a statement Wednesday that the WBO's championship committee will review video of the fight with five recognized international judges and make a recommendation. He said the WBO does not doubt the ability of the scoring judges. So I've never heard of that, going back and reviewing a decision, Mike.

PESCA: Yeah, but it won't have teeth. They could make a recommendation and say our five judges saw what the public saw, so maybe you could look at that as a bit of a PR move. It's better that it's happening than it's not. But if the original judges just said that's not what I saw, there's nothing you could do about it.

CONAN: We're talking with Mike Pesca. He's NPR's sports correspondent. He's with us from our bureau in New York. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And let's go next to Amanda, Amanda with us from Mount Pleasant, Michigan.


CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

AMANDA: Thanks. Thanks for taking my call. I just think it's kind of - I know that there's technology everywhere. In fact, I'm sitting here on my laptop while I'm listening, you know, going through news and stuff like that. I don't think that just because technology is available in any particular venue that we have to use it, simply because it's available. Aren't there some things that are pleasant just because they're human and they're us? And going to the ballpark - I remember the first time I went into a baseball stadium. It was Busch Stadium in St. Louis, and I'd never seen anything like it. It was magical.

And I can't, you know, I was in my - I think I was 10. So there wasn't an inundation of technology like there is today. But I think that there's an interruption in our lives, and maybe even a little distancing from our humanity when we include these things that we've created, these tools, in everything we do. I don't think that we have to have any - who cares if the ball was two seconds - who cares? The human eye is part - like, we are human beings. If a judge makes a call in boxing match that's error or whatever, who cares? It's sports.

If the concern is the money riding on it, that's the question, not the human component. I don't give a crap about the money that's being exchanged between bookies and all of that other stuff. I know other people do. But if we're talking about a sport, technology doesn't have a place everywhere.

CONAN: Well, everywhere. One of the great human displays in the history of sports was John McEnroe going berserk over calls that were either in or out, and screaming.

AMANDA: Right.

CONAN: They now have...

AMANDA: Fantastic.

CONAN: They now have technology. He doesn't have to do that.

AMANDA: Yeah. And I mean, and everybody knows John McEnroe because he had a temper. And, you know, this is part of him. So, like, there's, I don't want to (unintelligible).

CONAN: I could have live without knowing the phrase: You are the pits of the world.


AMANDA: That's right. Right. I mean (unintelligible).

PESCA: Amanda, you cannot be serious.


AMANDA: I don't think - I don't want to see "Futurama" acted out in real life, where there are robot umpires and robot baseball players and robot boxers and robot everywhere, like that - we're human beings, and we do have - we still have a contribution to make to human things outside of computers and technology and what they can do for us.

CONAN: Oh, well.

AMANDA: That's my...

CONAN: Thanks very much for call, Amanda.

AMANDA: Absolutely. Have a good day.

CONAN: You, too. So long.

PESCA: I'll say one thing in favor of what Amanda's saying, and I do think you want the calls to be right. That's the bottom line. And when we see a replay that gets it wrong, who wouldn't that to be right? But in the sport of football - and I've done reports on this - you know, it's so laden with let's look at the videotape, that the drama of a football game - there was a couple of years ago, it was the Ravens versus the Steelers, and the question was: Did the Ravens receive or break the plane of the goal when he had possession?

We saw it from 104 angles, and we started triangulating and trying to see, you know, which angle would definitively prove the ball was over. And it happened so much with football games, that football becomes less, all right, he got it. Let's go. Let's keep going. Let's stop. Let's look at video reviews. So much of a football game becomes parsing the video review replay. I think that does damage the flow of a football game.

What we're advocating with baseball - or what I'm advocating with baseball - will happen a few plays a game, and you don't want to overdo it. The way they do it in basketball, with three-point shots, changes of possession, really a limited use of it, most people don't object. And tennis is the great example, because they have the Hawk-Eye system. It works really well. I don't know of one player on the tour who doesn't like the Hawk-Eye system. They don't have the technology in the French Open. And we see everyone getting down on their hands and knees, inspecting grains of sand. I think people are less pleased with that system than what they have at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon.

CONAN: Mike, please, it's clay there in France. And...

PESCA: Of value(ph).

CONAN: There is also hockey, which reviews goals that could be very tricky, but they seem to do it right. They have that one review guy sitting in New York at the office. He's watching the games and sends - they call up. They ask him for a decision. He makes the decision.

PESCA: Yeah. He's remote. I think he's in Toronto. Is he in New York?

CONAN: I think he's in New York. Yeah.

PESCA: Maybe he's in New York now, yeah. What would the exchange rate being equal, there's no difference.

CONAN: And...

PESCA: But, yeah, if someone's who's not even at the arena - and why do you have to be at the arena, if what you're doing is looking? That always strikes me as funny, that their referee goes under a hood in the NFL, like he's standing there in a stadium with people screaming in his ears, and he's watching, perhaps, the worst feed of it, of the 40 million people watching the game on TV.

CONAN: Before we let you go, Mike, a sweet story last night in Atlanta. Alex Rodriguez hits a grand slam and changes the game. He happens to tie Lou Gehrig along the way. But a 15-year-old kid in the stand drove five hours with his family and catches the ball with his cap.

PESCA: I love that, right? And the whole Alex-Rodriguez-versus-Lou-Gehrig thing, Alex Rodriguez is not coming out well. So we won't - I think we need a hero in this, and, yeah, it's the 15-year-old kid with his cap. Is he going to give - do you know if he's going to give it to A-Rod, give the ball?

CONAN: He went - he was a Yankee fan and went to - stood and waited and handed Alex Rodriguez the ball, gave it to him afterwards, didn't asked for anything. Of course, he was showered with bats and jerseys and baseballs as...

PESCA: I would hope, yes. That's the way to do it.

CONAN: Mike...

PESCA: I don't begrudge someone who could pay for their college education by keeping a ball. But still, that seems nice.

CONAN: Mike Pesca covers sports for NPR, and joined us from our bureau in New York. Mike, have a good weekend.

PESCA: You, too.

CONAN: This TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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