Death By Replay

5 03 2015

I’m increasingly disturbed by a problem I see in professional sports. I used to think that it was a uniquely American issue, but I’ve seen it internationally as well. And I think it will ultimately ruin our sports.

joyce-galarraga-shaking-handsIn June of 2010, Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga’s bid for a perfect game was ended one out short when first base umpire Jim Joyce incorrectly ruled that Indians batter Jason Donald reached first base safely on a ground ball.

The umpire was tearful and apologetic when he learned of his mistake. The pitcher was forgiving, ironically telling reporters that “nobody’s perfect”. The next day, Galarraga delivered the line-up card to Joyce at home plate, triggering a wonderful moment of class and sportsmanship by both men.

Today, that call would have been challenged with video replay and overturned. Justifiably, Galarraga would have his perfect game. I’m sure that both he and Jim Joyce would be happy with that. But we would have been denied this great story, which is bigger, better and more enduring than any perfect game.

It is a valid argument that plays on the field should be called correctly. But I think that is less important when the quality of the overall product suffers because of play stoppages and general slowing of the game.

For decades, there has been a collision of sports and technology. Advances like high-definition video and digital recording have certainly improved the fan experience, at home and on the massive screens at the stadium. And the amount of sports programming available every day is staggering. Fans of every sport have reaped these benefits.

Confused-Replacement-Referee-21The introduction of video replay has created a sort of dependency by game officials. There is nothing that bothers me more than officials afraid to make a tough call. How many times have two or more referees been left waiting for the other to make a decision? They are afraid of being vilified or, in some cases, losing income through lack of future employment.

Today’s athletes are stronger and quicker, and game plays happen faster than ever before. Game officials cannot keep up with the pace of some sports, and it is blatantly unfair for them to be judged against what is seen by ten different HD, super-slow-motion replays. Even after that, sometimes the pundits can’t agree on the correct call. How can we expect the referee on the field to get it right 100% of the time?

Simply put, we can’t.

refviolenceThe underlying issue is that there is just too much at stake. Millions of dollars hang in the balance on every play – potential advertising, player salaries, corporate sponsorships, etc. Let’s not forget legal and illegal gambling. The amount riding on these outcomes cannot be calculated. Officiating will continue to decline as qualified individuals will not want to expose themselves to that kind of scrutiny, and in some countries… danger.

We may have lost our perspective. This past summer, I was flipping channels and landed on one of the countless preliminary games of the Little League World Series. There was a stoppage of the game for a video replay. In Little League. For 12 year olds. Seriously? At what point does the need to get it exactly right outweigh our capacity to enjoy the game?

I offer no solutions, just concerns.  A method to upgrade officiating must be found, without ruining the sport. It’s a delicate balance. Inaction could be a death knell… when fan bases dwindle as the pace of events become slower, more robotic.

If we remove the human element from sport, we run the danger of removing the humanity. Humans make mistakes. Mistakes are part of life, teachable moments that can lead to truly wondrous events. As a fan of sport, I don’t really care about the dollars involved. But I am certainly in the minority.

Perhaps we need to concern ourselves less about stadium naming rights, and get back to the point where your favorite team winning gave you that one really great thing… bragging rights.

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