Against instant replay

This is deserving of a longer post, but in the aftermath of the controversial end to last Sunday’s Super Bowl, I wanted to make a quick point about electronic review in sports.

I’m against it. Always. My feeling has always been that referees and judges and umpires are participants in the ebb and flow of an event rather than mere arbiters. The errors they make and the injustices they foist upon players and teams are part and parcel of the game, inextricably bound up with what makes sport so heartbreaking and so exciting. In tennis, American football, international football, boxing, or any other sport, the fallibility of the referee enhances rather than detracts from the beauty of the game.

One of the under-emphasized pleasures of being a sports fan is the strange delight one takes in grumbling, sometimes for years, about a bad call that cost your team the game. There is a strange but unmistakable thrill — in sport if not in the rest of life — about the sensation of being defrauded by caprice or incompetence or fate. I shouted with outrage at the television when the referees allowed Diego Maradona’s “hand of God” goal in the 1986 World Cup against England. I’ve never forgotten the outrageous injustice of it. But there is real pleasure in nurturing that resentment against the referees (and, for that matter, Argentine football). I would rather have the pain of being robbed than endure the dreariness of having beautiful games become subject to pauses and replays and electronic second-guessing from an official’s booth.

When it comes to medicine and finance and marking student papers, I’m all for careful review and the willingness of all involved to see an initial decision overturned. But sport is about emotion and effort and guts and impulse — and I want my referees to do the best they can to the best of their frail human ability. Leave the computers and the video monitors out of their decisions, and give us all a more fluid game and the chance to engage in the wonderfully satisfying practice of whining about bad calls for days, weeks, and years afterwards.

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5 thoughts on “Against instant replay

  1. Please, a more fluid game? I can’t think of a less fluid game than football committee meetings after every play, a myriad of rules to comply with, and a host of rules lawyers to ensure compliance.

    Football, to me, has never been about fast paced imperfect action, it’s about ingenious planning and perfect execution. With TV cameras everywhere, and composite shots of players on the field, we’re given a perfect eye with which to compare this execution, and I don’t see any trouble with writing it into the game.

    When Santonio Holmes grabbed that pass, I just couldn’t tell, everything happened so fast, and the anticipation that was built up seeing that replay over and over again while it was under review was magnificent – so much more than it would have been grumbling about it after the fact.

    We have the technology to make the game correct, and for the fan that doesn’t have a rooting interest in either team, isn’t that what we should expect?

  2. But that’s the whole problem, pcrackenhead, the desire to “get the game correct”. Its beauty lies in the flawed excellence of all participants, including the refs.

    And to be fair, this is why I vastly prefer real football (soccer) to the American version. There’s a game with flow.

  3. I value above all else getting the call right. I even think that if a bad call alters the outcome of a game, I’d rather be the team that got hosed rather than the team that benefited, because it would gnaw at me forever after that.

    American football is long because of the commercials. I understand the economics of it, yes, but that’s the reason. Years ago, they actually changed the rules on when they reset the clock (starting it up again after a player runs out of bounds if there are more than five minutes left in the half), but it didn’t occur to them that a team calling time out on the four-yard-line [COMMERCIAL BREAK], touchdown/extra point [COMMERCIAL BREAK], and kickoff return to the 28 [COMMERCIAL BREAK] might just be the reason the game’s surpassing three hours. For that matter, I never understood why length is considered to be a bad thing, if it’s an event that’s supposed to be enjoyable to watch.

  4. Its beauty lies in the flawed excellence of all participants, including the refs.

    I guess that’s just where we’ll have to disagree, then. I hate it when the referees enter in as a part of the game, or even become a factor – why should the outcome of the game be on the line just because a certain official is calling the game?

    I watch to see players executing their game plan in a set of rules I can see, understand, and analyze. Would I have chosen that same course of action in their position? Cutting to the inside instead of trying to plow your way through, taking a big chance on converting in a 4th down, those are what are interesting to me, not quibbling about why some ref lost Team A the game.

    Instant replay furthers that along, which is why I like how it’s implemented in football, and is starting to expand in basketball.

    I suppose it just comes down to watching sports for different reasons. :)

  5. In tennis, American football, international football, boxing, or any other sport, the fallibility of the referee enhances rather than detracts from the beauty of the game.

    Well, that beauty also came at a price in some sports. For example, until rather recently sumo referees (gyoji) who made a single poor decision (further deliberated by a panel of ringside judges) were either compelled to resign or commit seppuku in the most serious misjudgments. (Gyoji still wear a small dagger to commemorate this strict convention.)

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