Can sports go back to spitballing on the big calls?

Video replay in football is a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences. And each sport has similar problems

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Bruce DowbigginAl Michaels was nettled. The star NBC announcer had watched yet another officiating tire fire at the end of Saturday’s Los Angeles Rams/Atlanta Falcons playoff game. He asked: Why do the final two minutes of a hockey game take two minutes, but the final two minutes of a National Football League game take 20 minutes of referee’s decisions and video reviews?

(You mean the National Hockey League does something right? Wow.)

His colleague at ESPN, Sean McDonough, was equally peevish as he watched the earlier Kansas City Chiefs/Tennessee Titans game on Saturday descend into an endless video symposium on what constitutes a catch in the NFL. McDonough and his (now former) analyst Jon Gruden lamented that video replay had been meant to solve the big problems, not the small ones.

When the lead voices for your televised product are carving you up live in your post-season games, you have a problem. (Of course the NFL’s solution was to re-up the commissioner who’s presided over all this creative destruction for another five years. But I digress.)

Video replay in football – heck, in every sport that now depends on reviews to decide close calls – is a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences. What was meant to be the solution to a number of refereeing issues (Is it a touchdown? Did the puck cross the line? Did the second baseman actually touch the base?) has instead expanded into a theocratic debate about control of the football and sliding past the bag.

Each sport has its own debates, but one video controversy has come to symbolize the issue of game decisions made by people in a video booth in the stadium or in some anodyne office in New Jersey: the NFL rule about what is a catch and what isn’t. Or the Calvin Johnson rule – named for the former Detroit receiver who made a brilliant catch to win a 2010 game against Chicago. Only to discover the catch was disallowed because he left the ball on the ground as he rolled over to stand up. Costing Detroit the game.

Leaving aside that the Lions are usually at the centre of disorder in the NFL, the league set a marker on the play that a receiver had to control the ball all the way through “contact with the ground.” This now means that if the ball wiggles even a teeny bit after the player hits the turf, the catch is not a catch.

There were seven such crucial reviews on Saturday alone. In two it appeared the referees ignored the rule – including a controversial fumble by Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota. Why? Beats me. And Michaels. And McDonough.

The catch rule also has a sub-clause that states a runner merely has to break the plane of the goal line with the ball to have it called a touchdown. He can lose control of it immediately after, but it’s still a TD. But a receiver must break the plane, get both feet down in the end zone and, crucially, control the ball through the catch. In other words, he must satisfy two more conditions than a running back.

Then there’s the ball carrier fumbling the ball through the end zone for a touchback, giving possession to the defenders on their 20-yard line. The Lions were involved in a notorious example of this in Seattle a few years back. But I repeat myself on the Lions.

Each of these situations required more film study than an Alfred Hitchcock revivial. Everyone from TV talking heads to the average fan seems to agree that this is all fubar. Gruden vowed that, as the next head coach in Oakland, he was going to make clarifying these sorts of calls a priority now that he’s back in the halls of power.

But he’s whistling in the dark. The sports have all opened Pandora’s box, although few wish to admit it. Having demonstrated the failures of their referees and video officials in repeated key instances, do they think they can go back to spitballing the big calls? Having watched jittery Jeff Triplette (now reportedly retiring) and his officiating crew miss obvious calls on Saturday, do they expect the public and, crucially, the bettors to put up with the old ‘it looks good’ standard when TV replays clearly show the opposite?

For all the venom unleashed about the NFL catch rule or the sliding-past-the-bag controversy in baseball, no one has a cogent alternative that can withstand the unblinking eye of super slow-motion. Some want to severely restrict which plays can be reviewed. Some want a little forgiveness on close calls. Others want to junk it altogether.

Good luck with that. Traditionalists can rail about the time it takes to play the final two minutes, but what will they say when a call that costs a Super Bowl or Stanley Cup is blown by an all-too-human referee?

In fact, we’re likely headed to more video, as Major League Baseball can only put off replacing human judgment on balls and strikes for so long. Fans want what they want. Rather than fulminate about the bad press it gets, the NFL needs to make the yard markers and the ball digitalized to measure first downs and scores.

Aim for the finality afforded by tennis video line calls, which have removed the uncertainty and the hysterics for much of the sport.

Best for all the leagues to get on it. Now.

Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.


sports, spitballing

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