It’s NFL playoff time, which means that sports fans will be treated to the sight of the most high-stakes farce in sports, namely the ritual of “bringing out the chains” to determine whether a team has gained enough yards for a first down. We’ve all seen this: the play is whistled dead, a referee un-stacks the pile of players, picks up the ball, and puts it down more or less where the player was stopped. Then he tosses the ball into the middle of the field, to a second referee, who tries to replicate the spot closer to the center of the field. Then a guy on the sideline carrying a big stick (connected by a ten-yard chain to another stick held by another guy) tries to put the end of the stick at the same position as the ball.
Three plays later, the spotting procedure is repeated, and then the sticks are bought out to the center of the field, the chain is stretched taut, and they measure the position of the ball to the nearest millimeter. Because, of course, there’s absolutely no error in placing the sticks.
The whole ritual is preposterous, and anybody with the slightest scientific inclination has to wonder: “Isn’t there a better way of doing this?” So, what would be required to do a better job of this?