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Advancing Fair Play: The Strategic Use of Body Cameras in Polo Officiating

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Advancing Fair Play: The Strategic Use of Body Cameras in Polo Officiating

Fergus Gould is the Executive Director of the United States Polo Association Umpires LLC. His 30 umpires oversee around 3,000 matches a year, encompassing club circuits and tournaments.

Increasingly, body cameras are being used to de-escalate instances of violence or aggression - surely that can’t be the main driver for their deployment in ‘the Sport of Kings’? Fergus explains:

“We use body cams to make sure that the application of the rules of the game are procedurally correct. Let me explain: in Polo, in the UK and the USA, there’s one sponsor who plays on their team and they also pay three professionals to play alongside them.

What the cameras do is independently record umpire calls and any challenges, and document the absolute integrity of my officials, by giving me and the sporting body an accurate recounting of events.

To put it into the context of a more familiar sport, it’s like when a soccer ref decides to award a direct or indirect free kick. Emotions will run high, and this technology ensures we can monitor that we – as a sport – are making the correct calls.”

Polo is fast. The three umpires on the field are covering a lot of ground. The cameras are mounted on their helmet so the lens is always pointing where they are looking (for those on horseback that’s often not the direction they are moving). Their body cams are also recording at all times during the match.

“Our training to my guys has been: ‘before you put your foot in the stirrup to get on the horse, your camera goes on.’ At first some were a little apprehensive – worried that I was listening to what they said off the field. But I really couldn’t care: I just need those calls documented - things like a yellow card being pulled - in case there are any inquiries after the match, and they all understand that now. Time and time again, the cameras have proved that the umpires are doing things correctly and generally the claims that are being made spurious. For an umpire, their authority is paramount. The cameras prove their integrity, and that embeds their authority.

And that's been my philosophy in this role: if we don't admit to mistakes, we have no credibility. We're not hiding from anything, we're not covering anything up, so let the cameras support us.”

Body cameras are not new in Polo, but Reveal K6 models are. Back in 2012, Fergus used Go Pros to record matches, so why the change?

“Back when I was an umpire, we had GoPro. Trying to get my guys to manage footage from their GoPros was an absolute nightmare. And the battery life was terrible. They're great for recording, skiing and diving, and stuff like that, but they're not great for finding footage. And when I need it, I need it now.

When I looked at Reveal, I could see how easy it all was and I thought Reveal might have the answer to my problem. Because there's plenty of things out there to capture video but Reveal put as much effort into the management of the footage and that has really just been life changing for all of us.

So even though the Reveal cameras are recording the whole match, it’s so easy for me to scrub to the part I need to review, and having the timestamp on the bottom of the screen lets me look at one camera to find the incident and then go straight to that time on another camera.

And I can store the files. I can go back and look at their interactions with the players, I can look at their interactions with other umpires. Sometimes it will be something really innocuous that happens and we didn't think anything of it at the time, and then it becomes something that we have to go back and assess in the future.

And when that happens, more often than not, the umpires are vindicated by the footage, so they know that ‘hey, you know if anything goes on, this thing is going to save me.’”

In practice, what this technology does is save a lot of time. The old process required statements, interviews, form-filling. But Fergus has noticed another benefit: improved umpire behaviour.

“You’re just more aware of what you say when you have the camera on. You think about your phrasing, whether you’re being clear. So a great use for this is self assessment, because you can't see how you come off in the moment.

The other great benefit is realising that this is there for support, not surveillance. So it really allows my officials to be able to interact with players open and honest and straightforward way, knowing that they're not going to have to worry about their words being twisted or someone inferring that they said something that they actually didn't. It gives context at all times, which pulls every call into a very sharp focus.”

Fergus finds himself referring to footage from the cameras on a weekly basis, and estimates that every two weeks evidence is put before the Executive Committee for them to assess. What advice would Fergus have for anyone looking to adopt this technology in their own sport?

“This technology works with human beings, it doesn’t replace them. It enhances their decision making and professionalism.

And, it wouldn't have worked so well if there had been an edict from above to use these, but we worked with the umpires to adopt this so they felt in control of the situation. They understood why they were wearing them, and I always try to be as collaborative as I can. As I keep reminding them, ‘these cameras are for your protection, and they're your responsibility.’ And everyone understands and appreciates that.”