Column: Time to wire football for sound?

In the era of ubiquitous CCTV cameras, of eye-in-the-sky

satellites that spy on the Earth and telescopes that peer

ever-deeper into the cosmos, it seems astounding that we can’t hear

much of what footballers say to each other on a pitch. Perhaps it

is time for some ”Big Brother” surveillance in football, too.

More well-placed microphones, why not even broadcasting sound

from the shirt lapels of referee Chris Foy and his assistants,

perhaps might have helped determine whether John Terry racially

abused Anton Ferdinand in Chelsea’s ill-tempered 1-0 loss at Queens

Park Rangers on Oct. 23. Even if on-pitch recordings could not

capture every exact word, maybe players would think twice before

directing tirades at each other and at officials if football was

more wired for sound, like rugby and other sports.

The idea of broadcasting match officials’ on-field words to

players, as rugby does, is not on football’s agenda. The sport’s

lawmakers last looked at this in 2004. The minutes of their meeting

show they were happy for officials to talk to each other by radio

during a match but they decided that ”such a system … must not

be used for broadcasting purposes.”

No surprise there. FIFA is hardly a trailblazer on the use of

technology. Its progress is excruciatingly slow on picking which

system football will use to determine when the ball crosses the

goalline. And Thierry Henry will likely be an old man before

football’s ruling body accepts video replays that could have

punished his handball that broke Irish hearts in 2009.

Still, that shouldn’t stop us from exercising our

imagination.

If players wore microphones, we might all have heard the

”certain word” Patrice Evra accused Luis Suarez of racially

abusing him with when Manchester United played at Liverpool. That

was a month ago, which is a long time for such an ugly allegation

to hang unresolved over the Premier League. Liverpool’s striker

denied it. United stuck by Evra. Which of them is telling the truth

must wish there was audio to prove it.

But wiring up all 22 players would be overly intrusive,

technically tough and of questionable use, at least for broadcast

purposes. A smarter middle route would be to broadcast at least

some of what referees hear and say. That was tried with astounding

effect in the 1980s, when David Elleray wore a microphone for

Millwall-Arsenal. It recorded Gunner Tony Adams squealing at

Elleray and calling him a cheat when he disallowed an Arsenal

goal.

In Australia, officials looked into repeating something along

those lines this season. They felt that broadcasting referees’

comments to players might help spectators Down Under, where

football isn’t the No.1 sport, better understand what’s happening

and improve on-field discipline. FIFA said ‘No’ to the Australian

federation’s initial feelers, but ”there’s still work being done

to possibly bring it in, as a trial, not as a league-wide

standard,” A-League spokesman Mark Jensen said in a telephone

interview.

”The possibility with using microphones for referees and having

that audio available is that players might realize they are being

recorded and tone it down for their image sake,” Jensen said. ”If

you see Wayne Rooney, you know, screaming offenses at a referee for

a decision, kids watch that and pick up on that and they think it’s

OK. So putting things in place to possibly curb that is only good

for future generations.”

In the Canadian Football League, which plays gridiron football,

the headcoaches and quarterbacks of the Toronto Argonauts and

Winnipeg Blue Bombers (CFL teams have marvelous names) agreed to

wear live microphones for broadcaster TSN for a preseason game in

June. TSN built in a 10-second delay so it could interrupt the

audio if the language got salty.

”As it turns out, we rarely used that,” Paul Graham, TSN’s

vice president and executive producer of live events, said in a

telephone interview. ”You could hear the coaches talking to the

players on the sidelines and conferencing in with their assistant

coaches, and you could hear the quarterbacks talking to their

teammates in the huddle and then making their calls.”

”From a viewer perspective, it was certainly entertaining,” he

said. ”From a league perspective, worth the experiment, but I

would be lying if I said they weren’t nervous throughout the whole

ordeal.”

So, if football wanted, something could be done.

If they knew more people were listening, perhaps potty-mouthed,

ill-tempered and abusive players would be more likely to hold their

tongues.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The

Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow

him at twitter.com/johnleicester.