September 25, 2004
Instant replay

Ever since I spent a summer umpiring Babe Ruth League games back in college, I've thought the idea of using technology to help officiate sporting events was a good one. As far as I'm concerned, the so-called "human factor" is nothing but a randomizer, like a bad bounce or a sudden gust of wind. It's no more charming than that, and speaking as one who became a "human factor" by blowing an easy strike-three call once, it's not something that's worth saving.

Whether baseball ever adopts some form of camera-aided ball-and-strike calling is unclear, but we do have football and its implementation of instant replay for the technology fans. I think they got it right this time, and I really don't understand at this point what the fuss from the traditionalists is about. And I really don't understand this line of reasoning from King Kaufman. He's referring to a riff on instant replay that Al Michaels and John Madden made during the first Monday Night Football game.

Edgerrin James lost a fumble in the third quarter of that game. It looked to me like James' elbow hit the turf a split second -- even in slow motion it was a split second -- before the ball was ripped from his arm, but it was ruled a fumble on the field and that ruling was upheld on review. In other words, the ball came out before James' elbow hit the grass.

"I kind of like that, get back to where a fumble is a fumble," Madden said. "I mean, someone has the ball, and if they get hit and they fumble it's a doggone fumble. Now, every time there's a fumble, we have to look. Is the elbow down? Is the knee down? Is the foot? You know, all those types of things, instead of it just being a fumble. That was good defense, and it was a turnover by the Colts.

"If they have any other emphasis on rules, that's one I'd like to see them emphasize, that a fumble is a fumble, and don't every time a guy fumbles, don't start trying to make excuses for it and find out why it's not a fumble."

Michaels agreed. "I mean, let's face it, John, the impetus for replay in the first place was to correct egregious calls," he said. "And now it's reached a point where you parse the real close calls."

"Right, too fine," Madden said. "And then you get away from what football is and has been."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Instant replay has altered reality, has changed what, in Madden's words, a doggone fumble looks like. Officials call "down by contact" -- the NFL's current technocratic term for "tackled" -- on fumbles far more than they did in the pre-replay days. I can't prove this statistically, but if anyone were to study it, I'd be willing to bet a lot of money that I'm right. It's obvious. Twenty years ago, you almost never saw the ball-carrier ruled down on an apparent fumble. Now, most plays that are apparently fumbled are ruled, on the field, "down by contact."

Instant replay was introduced to correct mistakes, not to change the definition of what a fumble is. It's been a change for the worse.

I dispute the notion that instant replay has changed the definition of a fumble. What it has done is allow a more exact understanding of when a fumble has occurred by allowing for a more exact understanding of when a tackle has occurred. A fumble can only happen prior to a tackle, and a tackle happens when a ball-carrier's knee or elbow touches the ground as the result of contact. When the knee is down, the player is tackled; when the player is tackled, the ball is dead; and when the ball is dead, possession cannot change. You're familiar with the phrase "the ground can't cause a fumble", right? Well, the reason the ground can't cause a fumble is because when the ballcarrier hits the gound, the play is over. This is the same principle. What's so hard about that?

What Madden is arguing, and Kaufman is endorsing, is that football was better when no one was really sure if a player was down or not. That's a value judgment, and it's one I'd bet Madden the coach might not have agreed with. I can't see how that actually improves the game, but maybe I'm the stick in the mud here.

Besides, it seems to me that there's still a human factor, albeit a lesser one, with instant replay. Some things are just plain hard to judge, even in super-slo-mo. Just ask any Raiders fan about the 2002 AFC Championship Game, for example. We're not going to run out of questionable calls to argue about anytime soon, no matter how good the technology to assist us with them gets.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 25, 2004 to Other sports | TrackBack

If you think the NFL is bad, try watching the NHL (when there isn't a lockout) or any match in either rugby code (there is a big difference between rugby league and rugby union). The video referee is called upon not by the coaches, but by the on-field referee to determine if a goal or try was scored at least once a contest. The video ref in rugby league and rugby union to determine if something occurred away from the play (commonly a punch or push of an opposing player).

I like video officials, but there has to be a limit. The NFL has proven that it can work.

Posted by: William Hughes on September 25, 2004 10:04 AM

I've certainly been known to rewind a baseball game I'm watching and watch a pitch in slow-motion, just to see if it was really a strike or not, but I'd hate the idea of instant replay on pitches. Baseball is slow enough already. Last thing it needs is instant replay for pitches. I wouldn't mind it for stolen bases, home runs, tags, or fair/foul calls, but that's about it.

With football, I generally like the system going in the NFL. I do think it encourages a bit more nitpickiness than should exist, but it just takes watching some bad calls in college football to remind me that fewer egregiously bad calls happen in the NFL now.

Posted by: Sue on September 25, 2004 10:11 AM

I don't care about football. But balls and strikes being called by a video camera would be an abomination.

I believe it was Umpire Ron Luciano, in his book The Umpire Strikes Back, who told the story of mistakenly calling a 3rd strike on Rod Carew - a pretty great hitter.

After the game, he went to Carew and apologized for missing the pitch. Carew said it was okay; he had missed two of 'em.

Part of the beauty of baseball is its celebration of mundane humanity. Human error is a significant part of the game - from pitch selection to base-running decisions to where to position for a bunt, to when to pinch hit. If there had been some sort of digital capture device to monitor calls, would Jackie Robinson have really stolen home in the World Series?

Would Koufax have really had all those strike outs?

Ted Williams didn't need a video/computer assist to hit the damn ball, so why should umpires be saddled with such dubious "assistance" to make calls?

The very fact that umpires - just like the players - are imperfect, and sometimes make mistakes, is an integral part of the game.

The two leagues have different strike zones, and individual umpires vary in their calls. And so the players have to learn an individual umpire's idiosyncracies. And they've all done it for a very long time.

Baseball functions as a metaphor for life. It ain't always fair, it don't always work out the way we think it should. Baseball is a game where a failure rate of 70% describes greatness as a hitter. That's what makes it such an enduring proposition. Umpires deserve no less appreciation for their capacity for human error.

Posted by: bz on September 26, 2004 10:15 PM

The last thing that baseball needs is for the game to slow down even more. However, as good as the umpires are, they miss calls that are sometimes obvious on the replay. One of the things that burns me the most are those missed calls and inconsistency of the strike zone. Especially if it affects the outcome of the game.

One approach that has crossed my mind would be to have an Uber-Ump (or several) constantly reviewing the plays that we all see on TV. If a play is called incorrectly, the Uber-Ump could override the decision. This is basically the role of the official in the high chair in Tennis; the line judges make calls, and if the official sees it differently, their opinion vetoes the line judge.

Of course, this in itself may slow the game down if one team stalls in order to have the umps take a longer look at the replay. I would say that the Uber-Umps should not reverse a call unless there is very clear evidence of an error.

Posted by: Andy on October 14, 2004 9:48 PM