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instant replay

“The only game in college sports history whose the final outcome was decided after the game”

If you follow sports, you have probably heard about this:

In one of the more improbable finishes to a football game, Central Michigan wide receiver Corey Willis grabbed a lateral from fellow receiver Jesse Kroll at the 12-yard line after a Hail Mary and raced into the end zone with no time remaining to stun No. 22 Oklahoma State 30-27 on Saturday.

It never should have happened.

Mid-American Conference referee Tim O’Dey — as well as the MAC and the Big-12 conferences — acknowledged after the game that Central Michigan was wrongly awarded an untimed down, which resulted in the miraculous Hail-and-lateral finish.

“I’m going to leave that alone. We had a play, we executed, end of story,” Central Michigan coach John Bonamego told ESPN. “I’ll leave it for everybody else to discuss.”

With four seconds remaining, Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph threw an incomplete pass to the left sideline to run the final seconds off the clock for what seemed to be a 27-24 victory for the Cowboys (1-1). However, no receivers ran a route, thus resulting in an intentional grounding penalty on fourth down.


Since intentional grounding is a foul that includes loss of down, that meant Oklahoma State turned the ball over on downs.

“There’s a rule that says that the game cannot end on an accepted live ball foul. That’s the rule. There’s an exception to the rule that says if enforcement of the foul involves a loss of down, then that brings the game to an end,” O’Dey told a pool reporter.

“So in that situation, we’ve had the opportunity to run it back through our hierarchy, which includes the national rules editor, and he confirmed that should have been a loss of down and the end of the game at that point, so that extension should not have happened.”

The rule in question is Rule 3, Section 2, Article 3.1 in the NCAA football rule book: “A period shall be extended for an untimed down if … a penalty is accepted for a live-ball foul(s). (Exception: Rule 10-2-5-a). The period is not extended if the foul is by the team in possession and the statement of the penalty includes loss of down.”

The Mid-American Conference issued a statement that the officiating crew was in the wrong, but the result of the game would stand.

“The Mid-American Conference officiating crew … made an error on the final play of regulation,” Bill Carollo, the coordinator of football officials for the Collegiate Officiating Consortium, said in a statement. “The crew made a misapplication of the rule and should not have extended the contest with one final play. Despite the error, this will not change the outcome of the contest.”

MAC officials weren’t the only ones in the wrong. According to the Big 12, Coordinator of Football Officials Walt Anderson said “the Big 12 replay crew missed an opportunity to stop the game to inform the MAC officiating crew of the misapplication of the intentional grounding penalty as time expired.”

According to the Big 12, NCAA rules permit instant replay to “correct egregious errors, including those involving the game clock.”

None of those explanations mattered to Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder, who issued a statement saying it’s “incomprehensible” that the outcome can’t be reversed.

“We were told there is nothing that could be done,” Hoder said. “… The final score shows that Oklahoma State lost the game but that doesn’t mean that I have to agree with it.”

All of the officials involved have been suspended as a result of the screwup, which seems reasonable. I question that assertion that there is nothing that can be done about the outcome of the game. College football historians will note that there is a precedent for this, from way back in 1940. Here’s a WBUR story from last year, the 75th anniversary of the infamous “Fifth Down Game”, between Dartmouth and unbeaten and #2-ranked Cornell:

According to the informal historian of Dartmouth sports, Jack DeGange, Dartmouth’s opponent on Nov. 16, 1940, had a lot to lose.

“Cornell was on an 18-game unbeaten streak,” he said. “They were nationally ranked. They were clearly the dominant team in the Ivy League. And at that point, Dartmouth, by contrast, was 3-4 coming into the game. But there was a lot on the line, especially for Cornell.”

It was a low scoring affair, and Dartmouth took a 3-0 lead into the closing seconds of the game. The tension must have been terrific, and maybe it was that tension that effected one of the officials, Red Friesell.

Anyway, Cornell had the ball deep in Dartmouth’s territory. After a couple of unsuccessful running plays inside the Dartmouth 10 yard line, it looked as if Cornell might need all four tries to score.

And then they did score a touchdown on a pass play. But it was only after Red Friesell had inadvertently given them…a fifth down.

“And he says, ‘I think I may have made a terrible mistake,'” DeGange recalled.

“This is the official, who admits this in the car on his way to the train!” I said.

“Well, yeah,” DeGange said, “but they hadn’t looked at the film on both teams, which, over the next 24 hours is what happened. They looked at the film and concluded that, in fact, Cornell got the fifth down.”

Once everyone agreed this is what had happened, Cornell made the unprecedented and since-unrepeated offer to concede the game to Dartmouth, which was accepted. The game went into the books as a 3-0 win for Dartmouth. I read about this as a kid in the book Strange But True Football Stories, which is a bargain at many times the price listed at that Amazon link. What I didn’t know and only learned as I googled around for this post, is that Cornell didn’t actually expect Dartmouth to accept their offer:

It would go down as perhaps the greatest act of sportsmanship in college football history, but Lou Conti and his Cornell teammates wanted no part of it.

Cornell President Edmund Ezra Day, declaring the outcome to be “tarnished,” sent a telegram to Dartmouth, offering to forfeit the victory to the Indians.

“I remember he was a Dartmouth man,” Conti says of Day, a Dartmouth graduate, “and his classic remark was, ‘You can offer them the game, but they won’t accept it.’

“We didn’t believe that. I didn’t believe that. Nobody believed that they would not accept the game.”

And they were right.

Dartmouth accepted.

“Our coach and athletic director told us, ‘As the years go by, this will resonate as a fine example of sportsmanship’ — and they were 100% right,” Conti, 91, says during an interview at his home outside Chicago. “But if I had been a grown person with some authority, I never would have offered to give the game away.”

In that case, of course, it would have been long forgotten.

“Winning evaporates in time,” Conti’s 92-year-old former teammate, Bud Finneran, says from his home in Bensenville, Ill. “But something like this goes on forever.”

Indeed, Cornell’s selfless act was celebrated far and wide, its implications reverberating through the decades.

Sportsmanship, wrote the New York Herald Tribune in the immediate aftermath, “remains in its true form so seldom these days that when it can be truly applied, as it can to Cornell University … there seems again to be hope in the world.”

Wrote the New York Times, in a similar editorial praising the Big Red’s offer: “If we were Cornell, we wouldn’t trade that telegram for all the team’s victories in the past two years.”

Years later, commentator and longtime college football observer Beano Cook would rank Cornell’s magnanimous gesture as the No. 2 moment in the sport’s long and storied history — behind only Knute Rockne’s “Win One for the Gipper” speech.

“I’ll be darned,” Conti says.

That was from 2010 and the 70th anniversary of the game. I’m delighted there were still a couple of players from the game around to talk about it. Some of you may recall that there was another Fifth Down game in the much more recent year of 1990, in which Colorado was the beneficiary and Missouri the victim. Colorado and its coach, Bill McCartney, who went on to be a founder of the Christian conservative group Promise Keepers, declined to consider the possibility of mimicking Cornell. I never cared for Bill McCartney, who did eventually regret his decision, and this did nothing to change that.

Anyway. It sucks to be Oklahoma State right now, and this loss is going to sting even if the playoff committee takes the circumstances of the loss into account. But don’t say there’s nothing that can be done. There is, and there’s precedent for it, even if it only ever happened once.

MLB adopts expanded instant replay


Baseball’s replay age has finally dawned, thanks to Thursday’s unanimous approval by owners of what commissioner Bud Selig called a “historic” expansion of replay to correct missed calls.

The new system, which will go into effect this season, will give managers most of the power to trigger reviews, by providing them with one challenge per game, along with a second potential challenge if their first is upheld.

Only after a manager has used up all of his challenges, and only from the seventh inning on, would umpires be authorized to initiate a review on their own.

For the first time, calls at first base, at the plate and on the bases will be reviewable. There will be limited exceptions, including the fabled “neighborhood play” at second base. But MLB executive Tony La Russa, one of the architects of the new system, estimated that almost 90 percent of all potential calls are now reviewable.

Disputed home runs will be reviewed under existing rules and do not need to be formally challenged.

Baseball officials paved the way for Thursday’s vote by negotiating late deals with the Major League Baseball Players Association and with the Major League Umpires Association. Sources said an agreement with the players’ union wasn’t finalized until Wednesday night.

“The Players look forward to the expanded use of replay this season, and they will monitor closely its effects on the game before negotiating over its use in future seasons,” MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said in a statement.

Meanwhile, MLB alleviated a key concern of the umpires by agreeing to hire two additional umpiring crews (a total of eight new umpires), and staffing the replay center in New York through a rotation of current umpire crews instead of with former umpires and umpiring supervisors.

“For some, the discussions regarding expanded replay appeared to move too slowly, too deliberately. But there were technical and operational challenges that needed to be addressed, and that took time,” World Umpires Association representative Brian Lam said in a statement.

More details are here. As you know, I’m a big supporter of replay technology to get as many calls right as possible. I just see no reason not to be able to review and correct where needed calls that are obviously, painfully wrong. Umpiring is hard – I’ve done it for youth baseball – and MLB umpires generally do an excellent job. But nobody is perfect, and even the best umps can get caught out of position or get a sub-optimal view. Why hang them out to dry when a fix is so easily done? The NFL has used instant replay with great success for years, and while it was controversial at first, there’s basically no one arguing against it any more. I’m sure there will be some reactionary voices this season, and I’m sure the system will need some fine-tuning – MLB has committed to tweaking it as needed over the next three years – but before you know it we’ll all be wondering what took so long. Pinstriped Bible and Hair Balls have more.

FIFA may face up to reality

The world of international soccer may finally adopt technology to help officiate its games.

The most powerful man in soccer called goal-line technology a “necessity” Wednesday, only hours after Ukraine was denied what appeared to be a legitimate goal in its must-win match against England at the European Championship.

“After last night’s match GLT is no longer an alternative but a necessity,” FIFA President Sepp Blatter wrote on Twitter.

Marko Devic’s shot in the 62nd minute of Tuesday’s match looped up off England goalkeeper Joe Hart and appeared to cross the goal line before it was cleared by defender John Terry. The official standing near the post didn’t signal for a goal, leaving the referee no option but to play on.

If the goal had been awarded, Ukraine would have pulled even at 1-1. But the co-hosts instead lost 1-0, a result that eliminated them from the tournament.


UEFA is using Euro 2012 to trial the five-official system that features a referee, two linesmen and two additional assistants beside the goal. It’s UEFA President Michel Platini’s preferred alternative to goal-line technology.

FIFA will decide on July 5 whether to approve the five-official system and either of the two goal-line technology systems currently being tested in England and Denmark.

Speaking at a media briefing in Warsaw on Monday, Platini said he expects goal-line technology to be approved at the IFAB meeting.

“Yes, Blatter will do it,” Platini said. “He will (introduce) the technology, but I think it’s a big mistake. … it’s the beginning of the technology, the arrival of the technology.”

Grant Wahl discusses the significance.

I don’t want to get bogged down in the particular side-details surrounding the call in this game. Yes, there was karmic justice, since the assistant referee also missed a Ukrainian offside in the build-up. And yes, it’s unfair to say that the goal-line mistake robbed the Ukrainians of a victory they needed to advance, since they would only have tied the game at 1-1. (At the same time, it’s also fair to say that the game at 1-1 would have been different.)

But don’t take your eye off what matters most: In one of the sport’s showpiece events, the ball crossed the line entirely and was not ruled a goal.

The exact same thing happened at World Cup 2010, when England’s Frank Lampard was robbed of a goal that clearly crossed the line against Germany. Even worse, Ukraine’s phantom “goal” happened with that additional assistant referee on the line.

You can see video of the play here; the English announcers admit the ball is clearly over the line, and reference the 2010 World Cup non-goal England scored as karmic balance. I was home for a couple of days last week after a minor medical procedure, and thankfully had the UEFA championships to help pass the time during the day when I couldn’t do much more than occupy the couch. I didn’t see this game, but I still feel invested in the result. As a proponent of instant replay in soccer and other sports, I applaud this development. I have never understood the attitude of people like Michel Platini, who prefer to let games be decided by fate rather than by what actually happened on the field of play. In almost any other context, when one is incontrovertibly shown to have erred, the normal reaction most of us have is “What can I do to ensure I don’t make that same mistake again?” Unless you’re a sports league president or the like, in which case you blather on about the “human element” and how it’s better to be failed by human officials than given a correct ruling by technological means. I just don’t understand the mindset.

Anyway. As Wahl notes, despite Blatter’s statement this is not a done deal. Adoption of goal line technology will require six out of eight votes at the International Football Association Board (IFAB), and it’s always possible there are enough reactionaries there to hinder progress. But whatever happens there, it seems that an important step forward has been taken. It’s getting a lot harder to stick your head in the sand about the technology that’s available and the need for it.

Calling a ball a ball and a strike a strike

Bobby Valentine says that’s the way he wants it.

A day after being ejected, Boston Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine was still steamed about umpiring, and said technology should be used to eliminate human error in calling balls and strikes.

“I want a ball called a ball and a strike called a strike. Figure out how to do it,” Valentine said before his team began a series Monday at Miami.

Valentine, upset with plate ump Al Porter, launched a tirade with two outs in the ninth inning of Sunday’s loss to Washington. The Red Sox dropped all three games in the series, and Valentine said his frustration about the way pitches were called built through the weekend.

But he said he has long been in favor of using technology to get such calls right. Covering the Little League World Series as a network announcer convinced Valentine change was needed.

“It was the most criminal thing I ever saw,” he said. “I wanted to cry when a kid, in the sixth inning with the bases loaded and his team down by one run, was called out on a strike three on a pitch that was six inches outside. He couldn’t reach it with his bat. I cried for him. That kid is scarred for life playing our game by an injustice.

“And then someone says the most ridiculous words that I ever hear — ‘But we like the human factor.’ It’s criminal that we allow our game to scar a young person like that. And then it continues. I think in 2012 it should not be part of the process.”

Valentine declined to propose a specific solution, but said the technology exists to improve the accuracy of calling pitches. He said he doesn’t fault umpires, because he believes it’s impossible to see the final few feet of a pitch traveling 90 mph and sometimes breaking sharply.

I share Valentine’s feelings about “the human factor”, which stopped being charming once it became undeniable how random it is. The technology to do this any better than the umpires isn’t there yet. When you see the “K Zone” on ESPN or whatever, you’re not seeing the whole picture, because the strike zone by definition is three-dimensional. If any part of the ball passes over any part of the plate at the right height, it’s a strike. It’s just a matter of time and having enough cameras in the right places to make it feasible. The question is whether the powers that be, and that very much includes the umpires themselves, want to see this happen. Cameras are only being used in a very limited way right now, for home run calls, so there’s a long way to go before the idea of technology supplementing, or perhaps supplanting, human arbiters takes hold. I think it’s inevitable, but I believe it’s at least a decade, if not a generation, away.

More replay for MLB, please

They’re thinking about it, but don’t rush them.

Major League Baseball currently is exploring the expansion of instant replay with the World Umpires Association, and no timetable has been specified for any adjustments to the current policy.

The owners and the MLB Players Association agreed in collective bargaining last year for a new Basic Agreement that replay could be expanded to be used on fair-foul calls down the lines and balls deemed trapped by fielders. Any formal expansion of replay requires collaboration between owners, players and umpires. Replay is currently used only to determine the legitimacy of home runs — whether the ball was fair or foul and whether the ball was over the fence.

“I’ve had very, very little pressure from people who want to do more,” Commissioner Bud Selig told a small group at a sport and society conference at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis., on Wednesday, according to The Associated Press.

The umpires union has told MLB officials in recent meetings that a significant assessment of options needs to take place if replay is to be changed. Right now, any possible expansion would not occur until next season at the earliest.

Want to know why this is needed? Here’s one reason:

This particularly egregious example of a blown call, which happened in April, has been widely discussed around the Internet. Arguably, instant replay isn’t really needed for stuff like this. I mean, at least one other umpire must have seen what everybody else in the stadium saw on that play. If there were some way for another umpire to step in and say “that call was wrong”, either on his own or via an appeal from one of the teams, replay would be superfluous in a case like this. But there is no way to challenge a call in baseball as you can in football, so this sort of thing is breezily dismissed by the so-called purists as “the human element” instead of decried as the wholly avoidable travesty that it is. But hey, as various people have pointed out, at least this terrible call didn’t ruin a perfect game or change the outcome of a World Series.

The bottom line is this: Baseball games should be decided by the players. Sure, there will always be external factors that cannot be controlled – wind, weather, bad hops, etc. But bad umpiring needn’t be one of those factors. Whether or not technology is part of that solution, the culture has to change. I don’t see any reason why that can’t start now.

MLB labor deal calls for more use of replay

This overview of what’s in the proposed collective bargaining agreement for Major League Baseball has the following interesting tidbit:

MLB wants to expand replay to include fair-or-foul calls, “whether a fly ball or line drive was trapped” and fan interference all around the ballpark. Umpires still must give their approval and it’s uncertain whether the extra replay will be in place by Opening Day.

As you know, I approve of video reviews where possible to ensure a correct call was made. The “human element” should be about the players, not about the possibility of an egregious, uncorrectable error from an arbitrator. I just hope MLB gives some thought about how to resolve these situations when a call needs to be reversed. It’s usually easy enough to handle when the call should have been “foul ball” or “proper catch”, but how do you restore equity when a ball that was declared foul should have been called fair, or when a catch should have been a trap? It’s hard to know what “should” have happened when the action comes to a premature halt. Obviously, there will need to be a certain amount of umpire discretion, and some outcomes will be less than fully satisfactory though still better than they would have been otherwise. Expect a few bugs in the system, and be willing to go back and make refinements as needed.

There may be hope for FIFA yet

Maybe. We’ll see. But it’s a start.

With pressure for video replay mounting after two blatant missed calls at the World Cup, FIFA president Sepp Blatter said soccer’s governing body will reopen the issue after the tournament.

Blatter said Tuesday that FIFA deplores “when you see the evidence of refereeing mistakes.” It would be “a nonsense” not to consider changes, he said.

He still doesn’t think a replay implementation would have done anything about the Argentine offsides goal against Mexico. I say that’s a tautology. A setup in which a booth official is empowered to view replays and intercede as needed would have nullified the goal, and a setup that lacks that feature would not have done so. But at least he’s willing to consider using some form of replay. I note with interest that FIFPro, the group that represents pro players worldwide, favors replay. As long as there’s pressure, there’s hope.

Tell me again why there can’t be instant replay in soccer?

Item one, Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal for England against Germany:

Note how utterly out of position the official’s assistant was for this. Seems to me that if you’re going to have a camera in the goal, you may as well use it. As they say in that ESPN clip, FIFA refs are already using technology to communicate with their assistants. And hell, hockey has used cameras to validate goals for a million years now. What is the problem with this?

Item two, Argentina’s offsides goal against Mexico:

ESPN video is here, and a clear view of Tevez heading the ball in, which I hadn’t noticed at first viewing, is here.

All of this is without taking into consideration the well-known bad calls that affected Team USA. None of this is gray zone, subject to interpretation stuff. These two non-calls today are as clear as you could want, and would have been trivially corrected with any halfway decent instant replay implementation. The debate about this is over. The technology exists. It won’t get everything right, but it will sure as hell get a lot more of it right than what we’re getting now. Hiding behind platitudes about the “human element” is little more than nihilism. Allowing obviously bad calls to stand because there is no mechanism to deal with them is the antithesis of letting the players decide the outcome. It’s well past time that every sport recognized that and took whatever steps they can to integrate technology into their officiating.

So how about that instant replay?

I presume you’ve heard about the perfect game that wasn’t, thanks to the blown call by the umpire with two outs in the ninth inning. If not, see here, here, and here for the details. All I have to say about this is something I’ve said before, which is that I do not understand the resistance to making a best effort to get as many calls right as possible, which in this day and age means an appropriate use of available technology. So I’m going to let Ken Funck say it for me this time:

Add an umpire to the crew, put him in a video booth, and have him buzz the crew chief on the field when he sees something was missed. Since that extra umpire might have the best view of a given play, let him correct any egregious mistakes he sees. There’s no clock in baseball, and umpires already manage the timing of the game by, say, sweeping the plate clean while a catcher gets his bearings after taking a foul ball off his grill. No need for challenges or formal booth reviews—on a bang-bang play, just slow the action down for another few seconds to see if the replay umpire needs to fix an obvious mistake. If not, the game moves on. Giving this power to an umpire in the booth doesn’t undermine the authority of umpires, it expands it, and it protects them from the sort of unfair criticism that [umpire Jim] Joyce is likely to catch in the coming days. It would also add so little time to the game as to be negligible, and there are other, better avenues of speeding up games (e.g., limiting pitcher/catcher conferences or the number of times batters can step out of the box) that aren’t an accomplice to situations such as Wednesday night’s missed call.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my work life, it’s this: humans will sometimes make errors, so you need to set up processes to catch them before they lead to tragic consequences. Joyce certainly feels terrible today, but really, he shouldn’t. He did the best he could in the situation he was placed, and made a mistake that any other umpire, or indeed any other fan, could just as easily have made. The true error wasn’t made by Joyce, but by those whose blind adherence to empty slogans like “tradition” and “authority” and “the human element” put him in a position to fail so publicly. I hope they, too, had difficulty sleeping last night.

There was a time when I was willing to take it slow on instant replay in baseball, but that time has passed. We’ve seen way too many examples of blown calls that could and should have been easily corrected if the right tools had been available. It’s time to use those tools and get the job done better.

Having said all this, by the way, I don’t want to see Commissioner Bud Selig overrule the umpire, even if he has the power to do so. The point is to get the call right at the time. MLB can do a better job of that if it chooses to do so.

Forget the “human element”, just get it right

Regarding the debate over instant replay in baseball, two facts are incontrovertible. One, the umps have really been blowing some calls lately. I mean, Joe Mauer’s ground rule double to left in Yankee Stadium that Phil Cuzzi ruled foul even though it was fair by a foot was one of the more egregious things I’ve ever seen. And two, baseball has made numerous changes over the years to how the game is officiated, all of which were done in an effort to improve outcomes. Over a hundred years ago they professionalized the umpiring corps to prevent intimidation by home team fans. Over time they added a second umpire, then a third, and then a fourth, because it was too hard for fewer men to call the game. They added umpires on the foul lines in playoff games specifically because those calls can be very hard for an umpire stationed in the infield. Given all that, I don’t see why having an umpire in the booth, with the authority to step in and reverse an obviously wrong call, is such a big deal. To me, getting the call right outweighs any other concern. I fail to understand why that point is even controversial.

Watch for the loophole

So today Olivia and I went to the Astros game, which they won by a score of 5-0, and there was a situation that occurred that could have been a lot more interesting that it turned out to be. With Lance Berkman on base, Carlos Lee hit a long fly ball that caromed off the wall in right-center. Nationals center fielder Nyjer Morgan then made a great play in fielding the ball and throwing it in to the cutoff man, whose relay nailed Berkman at the plate by a good fifteen feet – it was so not close Berkman just pulled up and let himself get tagged. I wish I’d seen if the third base coach gave him the go sign or not, because whoever thought he could make it was waaaaaaay off.

Anyway. After the play ended, the Astros protested that Lee’s ball had actually cleared the yellow line on the fence, which made it a home run. After a discussion, the umps reviewed it on instant replay, and ultimately let the play stand. What made this a potentially interesting situation is if they had ruled it was in fact a homer, the Nats could have made an appeal play, claiming that Berkman never touched home plate. As far as I could tell, they would have been correct to do so, in which case one way or the other Berkman was going to be out at home.

It never came to that, of course, and if it had I’m not sure they would have thought of it. But it was the first thing that occurred to me, and having thought of it now, I’ll bet that one of these days we’ll see a situation like this play out. I’d say the lesson to be learned is to always touch whatever base you’re going to, because you just never know. You can just imagine someone becoming this century’s Fred Merkle as a result.