Instant Replay Makes Sports More Compelling

As instant replay began trickling into sports, naysayers argued it would slow down the game and violate the tradition of humans making the calls themselves. But there were just too many errors costing teams big time for leagues to hold out any longer on using it to make decisions.

Thank you. What a fantastic move it’s been to overrule the critics.

Dear leagues: please find ways to expand it. Make it a refereeing and umpiring tool in even more controversial situations. Let refs and umps go to the videotape more often.

No, not because of its raison être to prevent a team from suffering an injustice. But because it makes for some of the most compelling sports television and the games exceedingly more interesting to watch.

When their team is playing, fans say they want instant replay to ensure the calls are right. Others talk about getting it right to preserve the "integrity of the game." 

Yes, when a pitcher is robbed of a perfect game or a championship is denied because of gross negligence, that might bother everyone.

But for those less invested and serious, who cares whether the refs get it right? The fun comes in watching them review the calls and playing along with their decision-making.

Watching a close play over and over provides a fascinating sense of what it’s like to be a referee and make such snap judgments. It can delude viewers into thinking they can do a far better job. So, even on the couch with no influence, it can feel strangely empowering.

It’s a thrill to parse whether a receiver has two toes inbounds or a home run has nicked the foul pole -- then predict whether the refs or umps conducting the review will confirm or reverse a call. In the NFL, the anticipation builds all the way through the ref delivering: “After further review …”

It’s rare, but there are times when it feels as if refs’ reviews are taking too long. But even that adds to the viewing experience with a chance to rant: “These guys are so clueless. Anyone can see that. Gee whiz, get on with it.”

Yes, replays have been part of sports TV for decades. But, it’s a lot more interesting watching them when they can still have an impact on the game.

For more complicated calls, instant replay can offer illumination into obscure rules. In the NFL, replay brings an opportunity to play coach with the question of whether it makes sense to challenge a call and risk losing a timeout. Coaches feeling cheated get two challenges per half, but if they ask for a review and the ref determines the “call on the field stands,” then they’re charged a TO.

Instant replay also offers a chance to marvel at how far camera technology has come with the endless angles and super slo-mo. Less appreciated is the mastery of the camera operators and producers and directors. So many times when a call is in dispute and inconclusive replays are playing, somehow a better angle is found.

So, today, it’s fortunate that Colorado head basketball coach Ted Boyle won’t get his way. On Thursday, with less than a second left, his team hit a prayer of a three-pointer to give it an apparent 83-80 upset of third-ranked Arizona. But, just as the ball came through the net, the refs began huddling around a screen watching replays to determine if the shot had gone off in time.

It was agonizingly close. There was no way a ref could tell in real time whether the ball had left the shooter’s fingertips before the buzzer.

But, the ESPN replays were spectacular in capturing the microscopic. And with careful study, it seemed rather clear the basket should count.

The refs didn’t see it that way and reversed the call, sending the game into overtime. A robbed Colorado suffered a heartbreaking loss.  

Following the loss, Boyle said: just abolish instant replay. “Human error is part of the game,” he said on ESPN. “I don’t like it. I just don’t. I know technology has brought a lot of things to our lives, a lot of conveniences. We’ve been playing sports for a long time before we had TV and I just feel like it’s a game that should be decided by the players and the officials and not instant replay.”

Boyle was asked how he would feel if replay had given his team a win mistakenly. He said in fact his team had won a game with a bad call against Kansas State.

Instant replay giveth and taketh away. That’s why it’s great.

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