Off the field or court, sports law may refer to contracts, labor, torts, antitrust and other key legal fields, but on the hardwood, sports law is all about the rules book, a fact demonstrated by the false finale of Thursday evening's Colorado Buffaloes vs. Arizona Wildcats NCAA men's basketball contest.
With time running out in the second half of a tied affair, Buffalo guard Sabatino Chen attempted to beat the buzzer, draining a three-point field goal to give Colorado an apparent 83-80 victory—until NCAA Rule 2-13—also known as the instant replay provision—came into the picture.
After what Pac-12 coordinator Ed Rush described as a "thorough review court side [with] multiple angles of the play," officials Verne Harris, James Breeding and Randy McCall waived off the basket. Rush maintains the final decision to disallow the score was a confirmation that the ball was in the shooter's fingertips at triple-zeroes.
Colorado coach Tad Boyle, perceptually spurned by the call, was vocal and offered a strong opinion: "Get rid of instant replay...If human error is part of the game, let the officials call the game. Players, coaches and officials will make mistakes. It's part of the game."
Boyle maintains that had his team won the contest and benefited from replay, his opinion would be the same.
Nonetheless, NCAA Rule 2-13-3 requires the use of instant replay in exactly the 0.0 situation and referee Harris and his crew did exactly that.
Unfortunately, the broadcast graphic and arena scoreboard were not precisely in sync—specifically, while the graphic registered 0.2 seconds remaining in the period, the scoreboard atop the backboard read "0.0."
Indeed, the graphic had suffered from an approximately two-tenths-of-a-second time delay the entire game (e.g., when the graphic read 3.3 seconds, the actual in-arena scoreboard read 3.1 seconds). Meanwhile, television viewers watching in real-time on ESPNU were treated to a misleading press box view appearing to show Chen releasing the ball with 0.2 seconds displayed on the broadcast graphic scoreboard's game clock.
Because the on-screen game clock display and official game clock were not in complete synchronization, the graphic could not be used to determine when the ball was released and the officials were left to consider the scoreboard atop followed by the red LED lights surrounding the backboard (NCAA Rule 2-13-1).
Views from other angles appeared to show the difference between fingertips and release at 0.0 to be within one or two frames, making such a clock error or malfunction absolutely vital. Prior to overtime, Breeding informed the ESPN broadcast the ball was ruled to have been on Chen's fingertips with 0.0 on the game clock.
Furthermore, in football, hockey and baseball, inconclusive video evidence surrounding an original ruling reverts to the call on the field as being correct. In basketball, this is not quite the case, though the codes share many similarities.
As distinct from football, baseball and hockey replay rules, however, a standard of incontrovertibility or conclusiveness does not appear in the NCAA basketball rules book in regards to use of replay to judge an official's original call—because NCAA basketball replay is not used to review an official's on-floor call, but instead is used to determine what occurred on the floor, no such standard must be satisfied. Instead, "definitive information" is required to rule upon the play, independent of the actual call.
In other words, officials take into consideration the on-field/court call in football when looking at the replay in that sport, while in basketball, officials disregard the on-court call and judge a play on its own merits. Football Rule 12-1-2 is titled "philosophy" and bears the "fundamental assumption that the ruling on the field is correct."
Such a philosophy and assumption does not exist in NCAA basketball.
If no "definitive information" exists—either way—only then do officials return to the initial on-court call.
For instance, in NCAA Football, Rule 12-1-2 requires "indisputable video evidence" in order to reverse an on-field decision, such as whether a ball was snapped before time expired. In NCAA Basketball, by contrast, officials make the call using replay as opposed to reviewing an on-court ruling, meaning a more lenient burden of proof in order to affect either call (e.g., good or time expired).
Had the Colorado-Arizona call occurred in football, a definitive on-court ruling would have been rendered at the time of the real-time play and replay would have been used to determine the accuracy of this ruling. Under football rules, had calling (center) official Harris instantaneously ruled the field goal good, the burden of proof (indisputable video evidence) would have been on disallowing the score. Had Harris instantaneously ruled the field goal late (time expired), evidence must have been indisputable in suggesting the shot was released in time.
In basketball, though, Harris' initial call is irrelevant, given Rush's earlier categorization of confirmation.
For an imperfect metaphor, consider a criminal case's "reasonable doubt" (as in football/hockey/baseball) versus a civil trial's "preponderance of evidence" (as in basketball).
So, how about that sports law?
Gil Imber is Bleacher Report's Rules Featured Columnist and owner of Close Call Sports, a website dedicated to the objective and fair analysis of close or controversial calls in sports.