I have always—always—been a fan of being right.
And yet, the more I watch the referees, umpires and officials policing our modern-day sporting events, the more I realize our efforts to be right at all costs have begun to hurt the integrity of the games these rules were put in place to help.
Is it possible that being right…can be wrong?
Players make mistakes all the time, but our officials are now being held to a standard of competence none of them is equipped to uphold. When referees are accused of a mistake, most sports have put in place a series of complicated rules to verify and, if necessary, correct these errors.
Getting a call right has its merits. I am still a fan of that.
At the risk of this turning into a clichéd "hot sports take" we've grown to mock here on the Internet, I'm starting to wonder if this incarnation of replay review is doing more damage to some of these sports than good.
I was one of the biggest proponents of replay in every possible scenario for years, but I am simply not a fan of leagues like MLB, the NBA, the NFL and even the NCAA slowing down their games in the most crucial moments in hopes of getting a call right when they still manage to get it wrong far too often.
Replay can be great, but not when the rules surrounding the process seem to be trumping common sense.
The NBA Review Evolution
With seconds to go in the Los Angeles Clippers' 109-105 loss to the Golden State Warriors on Saturday, Chris Paul was bumped by Draymond Green, losing the ball out of bounds in the process. The officials whistled the play dead, giving the ball to Los Angeles. No harm, no foul.
Literally. There was no foul called, but possession stayed with the Clippers. This is a call that is probably made by an official 5,000 times a season on what could have been a ticky-tack foul late in games. Nobody wants a basketball game to be decided on the free-throw line, and neither team wants a whistle blowing for every hand check or potential reach-in when the easiest thing to do would be to award the team that had the ball with another chance at possession.
Right? Wrong, apparently—because as soon as the official gave the ball back to the Clippers, every player on the Warriors threw one hand in the air doing that spinning finger thing to indicate they wanted the play reviewed.
Upon that review, it became clear the ball went off Paul's fingertips after Green bumped him, causing the fumble to occur.
NBA rules allow officials to correct the gaffe, but they do not allow them to posthumously call the foul that created the mistake in the first place.
The NBA has already come out and admitted that a foul should have been called, lamenting the rules they put in place to review plays in-game, openly wondering if a plan to allow oversight to "broaden" the scope of replay would be better in future seasons.
Would it? Would the result of that play have been better if the review allowed the referees to call a foul by using video review?
The league was hamstrung on Saturday by its own rule. It would have been best to stay with the call on the court, give the ball to the Clippers, even though it went off Paul last, and move on with the game. But you cannot make that call in an era where we have the ability to see which fingertip—or in some cases fingernail—the ball hit last.
If you can see upon review that a call is wrong, you must make it right. It's about the integrity of the call, even if that may hurt the integrity of the game.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver addressed the concerns about situations involving replay heading into the playoffs, saying via NBA.com:
On one hand you'd like to get every call right if you can review it on replay, but if we were to do that, it would probably lead to a five-hour game. And that's balanced against the ebb-and-flow of keeping it an entertaining product.
The end of Game 1 between the Clippers and Warriors series was more ebb than flow. It was like watching an amazing auto race decided by a series of caution flags that were held up just so race officials could check to see if a crash had actually occurred.
Everybody off the track, we need to watch what just happened to determine what just happened.
Room for Context?
The NBA certainly isn't alone in trying to figure out a sensible solution to this problem. The NCAA's procedure on Flagrant 1 and Flagrant 2 calls during the NCAA tournament was laughable, stopping play for several minutes to determine if a player's elbow grazed an opponent's personal space on a pivot, watching replay after replay after replay, all in a feeble attempt to make sure the call was "right."
Officials have been shackled by their own procedure. Getting the call right has become more important than using common sense. On Saturday, NBA officials tried to use common sense. Replay swiftly showed why that has become an impossibility.
Frankly, Silver is one of the most forward-thinking minds in American sports, so while the NBA is woefully behind other sports in its current process of reviewing plays, it probably won't be for too much longer.
Now the obvious question begs: Will that make the game any better? If the NBA goes to a system where replays are reviewed by a hub at the league office, will that make the end product better? Will that even make the calls right?
What would the central hub have said about the play between Paul and Green? Even if replay reviewers were able to call fouls upon review, would they have done so on that play?
At best, the reach-in by Green was a judgment call, which means that games may soon be decided by someone outside the arena who, presumably, hasn't even been watching the game until the moment a play needs to be reviewed.
It is unlikely that the league will employ a dedicated replay official to every single game, unless that official is on-site, like in college football. That process has worked better than most, but if leagues continue to send replay back to a central hub, it comes with the understanding that the decision-makers will be making calls on multiple games each night.
And with that, context will be eliminated from every challenged call.
If a game is being called tightly, certain calls look different than if the referees are letting the players play. If a player steps on the end line after a rebound, but a reviewer in a central hub sees a slight push in the back, will he call that a foul? What if that nudge hasn't been called all game?
Is that the best way to get the call right?
Tie Goes to the Runner
In Major League Baseball, the review process has been, at best, a work in progress.
On Sunday alone, there were more than a dozen replay challenges reviewed, including plays at the plate, calls at first or second base, doubles that teams wanted changed to home runs and this asinine challenge by the Mets in trying to get a clear triple that one-hopped off the wall turned into a ground-rule double because—why the hell not? It was extra innings and they had a challenge to blow.
That challenge was just one of the many, many rules managers are able to contest this season. Heck, the league actually reviewed a play last week to see if a ball inside a player's glove was actually secured or merely occupying the pocket of air therein.
If a bird flies into a cave but does not touch the walls of said cave, is it really in the cave?
This is baseball's new replay conundrum. Red Sox manager John Farrell probably has some thoughts on this after being ejected last week in protest of a call just like that. From Jason Mastrodonato of MassLive.com:
We felt that it was clear that the replay was inconclusive. The frustrating part is when this was rolled out and explained to us, particularly on the throw received by the first baseman, we were instructed that when the ball enters the glove, not that it has to hit the back of the glove, is where the out is deemed complete.
At the same time, any angle that we looked at, you couldn't tell if the foot was on the bag behind Mike Napoli's leg. Where this became conclusive is a hard pill to swallow.
Ties no longer go to the runner because, with replay, there is no such thing as a tie.
Neighborhood plays like when an infielder swipes behind the bag instead of actually touching it before turning a double play have gone from "part of the game" to "under review."
A player dropping the ball on a transfer from his glove to throwing hand has changed as well. It all seems part of making the game better, but is it?
Joe Girardi challenged a call on Sunday that was a clear mistake by the umpires, calling a fly ball to right field out when it had careened off the fence. From the time Girardi sauntered out of his dugout to the time the call was corrected, it took Major League Baseball more than two-and-a-half minutes, with two field umpires standing around the designated replay area with headsets on looking like absolute dopes, while someone 1,152 miles away made the decision for them.
Two-and-a-half minutes for an absolutely obvious call. Sure, in the scheme of a three-hour baseball game, that time may be less than the average four-pitch at-bat, but that time adds up, and the games slow down even more while everyone stands around waiting for someone to get a call right.
Again, I'm in favor of getting the calls right.
Having said that, even when the umpires get a call right, teams (and fans) are justified in wondering if the right call was actually right.
Take this home plate call in the Phillies-Rockies game on Sunday, which was originally called an out before Colorado requested a review. The replay showed the player was tagged before he touched the plate, but the call was overturned because someone in New York deemed Carlos Ruiz was blocking the plate, a call made despite the fact the entire plate was visible to the runner as he slid into the plate.
Watch the last 20 seconds of that video and look at the umpire's face and gestures. Even those making the calls are frustrated that they aren't allowed to make the call anymore. The guy got the call right—the runner was out—but someone above him overruled the call in a never-ending effort to get it more right. From Todd Zolecki at MLB.com:
Twice in one week the Phillies had a play at home where a catcher blocked the plate before he received the ball.
Both times the home plate umpire called out the baserunner, and both times a manager asked the play to be reviewed under Collision Rule 7.13 to see if the catcher blocked the plate illegally.
Umpires ruled Phillies center fielder Tony Gwynn Jr. out at the plate on April 13 at Citizens Bank Park, despite the fact Marlins catcher Jeff Mathis had blocked the plate. Joe Torre, Major League Baseball's executive vice president of baseball operations, called the Phillies later to tell them a mistake had been made. The umpires correctly ruled Carlos Ruiz blocked the plate on Saturday in a 3-1 loss to the Rockies at Coors Field.
It is quite confusing.
Quite confusing, indeed.
Maybe that's a good thing, how confusing this process has been. MLB officials warned us that replay rollout would be a three-year plan, asking fans and teams to be patient as they constantly improve the process.
Basketball is doing the same, as the NBA continues to work on making the end-of-game situations both more fairly contested and entertaining. Perhaps confusion now will lead to clarity later. Let's hope for that.
Growing and Embracing Technology
The real problem with major sports is not that replay is bad; it's that technology has gotten so good that virtually everything can be reviewed. So why isn't everything reviewed?
Why is the NFL, for example, still hiding behind some calls being judgment decisions by the officials on the field? Pass interference is really a judgment call, but whether a player's foot was in bounds or on the line is not? If a player grabbed or pulled an opponent before touching the ball, that's pretty clear to see on replay.
How is "completing a catch" less of a judgment call than holding?
If anything can be reviewed, everything should be reviewed.
Of course, this is the problem MLB is dealing with right now, and a similar predicament to what the NBA found itself dealing with on the Paul-Green play from Saturday. It's just a matter of determining what everything really is.
Staying with the NFL analogy, if a player steps out of bounds as he catches a pass but is interfered with in the process of making the catch, should the NFL enforce the penalty while reviewing the catch? (Yes.)
Would your opinion change if the penalty happened 10 yards prior to the catch? (Yes…)
What if there was a hold on the play that allowed the quarterback to throw the ball that resulted in the catch out of bounds that exposed the interference? (Yes?)
If we are trying to get everything right, shouldn’t we get everything right?
When the NFL instituted a system where replay challenges could correct mistaken calls, it was one of the best rule changes in the long history of the league, even if that decision brought with it the silly game-within-a-game of using challenge flags for coaches to limit the number of reviews per game.
When the NHL one-upped the NFL by installing a replay system run by the league in a centralized office, the hockey gods smiled upon all sports fans, showing that not only can bad calls be corrected, but they can be handled quickly, efficiently and without the bias of those on the ground at the game, who seemed more worried about upstaging their partners, admitting their own mistakes or, in some cases, dealing with a hostile crowd than getting things right.
Getting things right is always—always—better than not. As the NFL and NHL were early adopters to the use of replay, their missteps with the process have been slightly more forgiving than what we're dealing with in MLB, and to a lesser extent the NBA, which has had limited replay for quite some time and is expanding the constrictions more and more each year.
Joining the replay review lot now comes with an expectation of perfection those that started decades ago were never burdened with having.
And as technology gets better and better, even the early adopters are not immune to failing to keep up with the times.
Why do we still use a metal chain to mark off a first down in football? Why is this not some kind of exact laser based on where the ball is marked? Why aren't all NFL footballs and knee pads equipped with sensors to determine if the ball crossed the plane of the end zone before a player was down so we don't have to rely on side judges giving their best guess in a scrum of 22 enormous bodies?
Why are sidelines not beset with radars to determine if a player touched the boundary before reaching the end zone?
How is tennis the most advanced sport in the world? Wait…what?
In sports like tennis—and slowly, over the last few seasons, soccer—review systems that use global positioning and high-tech lasers to determine if a ball is in or out have helped get calls right time and time again.
Championships can be decided by the outcome of these calls, and while many world football governing bodies are against the implementation of goal-line technology, it sure as heck seems better than sticking a referee behind the net to determine if a ball crossed the line.
The reviews are handled almost instantly, and the process is actually fun for those in the stands. The technology exists, and we still have officials huddled on the sidelines looking at tiny screens to get a call right.
Could you imagine just how ludicrous it would be in tennis if a challenge called for the umpire to get down off his or her chair, walk over to a tiny television screen and get on the phone with the production truck to see replays of whether or not a 120 mph serve was in or out?
If MLB was truly prepared for the replay game, it would have followed the model of tennis, not hockey and football.
For the longest time, it felt like baseball was the last bastion of human error being a part of the game. For crying out loud, the sport even has a category on the scoreboard chronicling how many errors a team commits, essentially celebrating the human element alongside runs and hits.
That element is almost gone now, at least in terms of how the games are officiated, and while the attempt to eliminate umpiring errors is noble, the execution still needs to get better.
Major League Baseball spent tens of millions of dollars setting up a replay hub that didn't even have access to every possible angle the local telecasts offer fans at home.
Could it have really been that hard for baseball to implement a system similar to what tennis uses for major tournaments? Money was no object, so why not eliminate the human element entirely? As Farrell said last week via MassLive.com, "as much as they're trying to help the human element inside this system, it seems like it's added the human element at a different level."
How long do we have to wait before all baseballs are made with sensors on the seams to alert replay reviewers when a ball was technically caught and not just a bird in a cave, so to speak? And will any of this truly make the game better?
I think so. I genuinely think getting the calls right will always help the game. But stopping a baseball game for several minutes while in extra innings, or halting a basketball playoff game with 20 seconds to go, to wait for someone to watch and decide on what everyone at home already saw five times is a horrible system. It should never be easier for those of us at home to officiate a game. That's where the lasers come in.
So until arena technology catches up to television, we are stuck tweaking the system as best we can. I suppose, however, it could be worse. More sports could be like golf, where viewers at home are able to call in when they spot a violation to penalize players.
The NBA said it is looking at what some of the other leagues do in terms of replay, but let's hope it leaves the home DVR reviews to the PGA.
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