The new world cup football has attracted considerable controversy as a technological artifact that may change the expected fortunes of the competitors. The discussion about its influence takes me back to my early writing about the ethics of technological changes in sport.
In this case the first relevant consideration is to recognize the historical context of the change; for this isn't the first time such a story arises in advance of a world cup. In fact, it is quite common for a headline about a new technology to dominate the media coverage of a sports event days before it begins and in 2006, the new football design for the world cup received similar attention.
From swimming suits to bicycles, the media's technological narrative on sports technologies works to destabilize audience expectations, thus heightening the competition's drama. The implications of this uncertainty is further articulated by the morally outraged experts and fans who are invited to explain how this unknown quantity could change everything, short of indicating that it is the end of the world as we know it. These stories have considerable marketing value for events that thrive on the prospect of surprise. One may even conclude that publicity of this kind is strategically designed to create more interest in the event.
Yet, aside from how the new technology may affect the media's narrative about the sports event, there are very real consequences to changing technologies in sports, which have a bearing on what we regard to be fair. However, the challenge to our understanding these consequences is that their full impact may remain unknown for some time to come. Consider the change from leather to plastic helmets in American football, which was designed to reduce the risk of head injury. While it did have such an effect, it also led to a greater recklessness in competition due to perceived greater safety. In turn, this led to athletes taking greater risks and their experiencing a greater prevalence of other serious injuries. Alternatively, changes to the javelin in the 1980s completely changed the requiremenets of the sports such that a new generation of thrower emerged. Sports are replete with examples of how technologies re-skilled the contest.
The world cup football has been variously criticized as a ball that will make it much harder for the goal keeper, furthering the idea that this redesign intends to create more goals and make for a more exciting competition. The Adidas presss release notes that:
"The “JO’BULANI” also features the newly developed “Grip’n’Groove” profile which provides the best players in the world with a ball allowing an exceptionally stable flight and perfect grip under all conditions. Comprising only eight, completely new, thermally bonded 3-D panels, which for the first time are spherically moulded, the ball is perfectly round and even more accurate than ever before."
England coach Fabio Capello is reported to have said that the England players are unhappy with the ball, since it is faster and lighter than previous balls. Yet, why should this be of any concern to the spectator or the players? As long as all teams are using the same ball, the competition remains fair, so why should it matter?
One of the reasons for being concerned is that, by changing the conditions of the competition, governing bodies may cheat players out of a tacitly agreed contract that the competitions would operate by the rules agreed by all parties. To understand how grave it might be to change the technology, consider if FIFA had launched a football the size of a tennis ball, or the shape of a rugby ball. What would be appropriate and reasonable reactions then?
Rightly, people would claim that such a transformation changes the conditions of the sport in such a way as to make it a completely different test of abilities. In turn, athletes would claim that they have trained for a particular type of contest and that the new design creates a different one, which they had not agreed to play. To this end, the concern is less about fairness between competitors and more about the legitimacy of a governing body to change the conditions of a practice without the agreement of its members. Yet, what often makes these matters even more complicated is the widespread disagreement about the impact of the change. Thus, designers stress that this is the most 'consistent' ball that has ever been designed. In this sense, they appeal to the idea that players have previously been playing with balls that have not allowed their full talents to be demonstrated, since the balls are not always performing in the same way.
From this appeal, we learn that what matters about some sports technologies is that they should always perform in a predictable manner. Indeed, this is why we see balls changed at regular intervals in such sports as tennis where their use can diminish their ideal properties. Yet, it is also interesting to note that we also witness athletes using this to their advantage, which is why, also in tennis, players may choose to serve with the same ball each time, for as long as they can. In such moments, the athlete is making a strategic judgement about which ball is best, which the other player may not recognize or may perceive differently depending on their unique performance. If absolutely predictability cannot be ensured, then it seems reasonable to purse new designs to optimize this condition. Yet, when a technology is introduced too late for players to adjust, or if the new technology is too radical a change, then the athlete's preparation may be undermined, thus creating circumstances where the new rules - the new ball - cheat the athlete out of a previously agreed upon set of conditions.
Sports treat different technologies in different ways. Sometimes, athletes are given the chance to choose their preferreed apparatus within a set of specified guidelines. For example, football players can choose which type of boots they wear and this may be decided on the basis of perceived importance (though it is often decided mostly by who is the chosen sponsor). On other occasions - like the World cup football - players are expected to align their talents with a technology that is given to them by the governing body. It is not quite the equivalent of tossing a coin to see which teams cope best, but it does introduce additional uncertainty into a competition where otherwise world rankings may determine outcomes.
In most cases, what unites new sports technologies is their common pursuit of reducing the uncertainty brought to the playing field by unforeseeable environmental changes. This is why when, in football, the ball unexpectedly hits a tuft of grass in the field and bounces over the goal keeper into the goal, we marvel at how unlikely the occurrence may have been, but ultimately feel a sense of injustice at its having happened. The same is true of goals by deflection. This differs from when a player unexpectedly exhibits an unusual and unpredictable performance, like a remarkable maneuvre around players leading to an exceptionally beautiful goal. In such cases, the unpredictableness of sports is celebrated as a moment of witnessing something extraordinary.
Yet, perhaps the best part of a surprise sports technology is that it offers fans some explanation for their team's failures which will permit them, four years later, to tune in again with a renewed sense of hope.