During Sunday night’s NFL game between the Cowboys and Raiders, referee Gene Steratore used an index card to measure whether the Cowboys had gotten enough yardage for a first down. When he determined that they had, Cowboys fans were elated and Raiders fans were outraged.

Here’s why the whole thing was ludicrous.

The placement of the ball at any point in the game is a relatively random decision by the officials. When there’s a player pileup, they can’t really see the exact position of the pigskin, so they make their best guess. Similarly, the sticks-and-chains used on the sidelines to mark the start of a series of downs and the point ten yards upfield (the “first down marker”) are also placed in an imprecise manner. Everything’s an estimate, and everyone’s okay with that — as long as it doesn’t work against your team.

The NFL is probably the most technologically advanced of the major sports leagues. Here are just a few examples:

  • use of replays to verify touchdowns/fumbles/catches/interceptions;
  • on-field audio picked up by mics on the players;
  • overhead cameras that put viewers in the action as if in a Madden video game;
  • plays sent in to the quarterback’s headset by coaches on the sidelines.

Yet the NFL still uses the human eyeball to determine the placement of the pigskin, or to determine where a player’s forward motion stopped. On a fumble or punt reception, a referee throws a blue beanbag in the general area of the change of possession. How can that possibly be 100% accurate?

It shouldn’t be that hard to solve this problem by putting — inside the ball — an RFID chip that transmits its exact location. When there’s a question about where things stand, check the data. Otherwise, if you’re going to stick with a referee’s judgement, the NFL (and college football, too) should change the rules to “well, it’s close enough.”

As a fan, I’d be fine with that — unless it affects one of my football bets, in which case, this whole thing is a ripoff!