The problem’s plain to see. Too much technology.
At the risk of channeling Chris Berman’s penchant for tagging sports with tired, old song lyrics — and surely sounding like an even more tired, old man — I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that “Mr. Roboto” is ruining the games I know and love.
Exponential development of gadgets and communication devices, not coincidentally tied together with our society’s unprecedented obsession with having to be “right,” has taken its toll on events that used to be can’t-miss television for me.
Let’s relive the recently completed NCAA basketball tournaments, if we must. Most of the men’s madness was more unwatchable than a wildebeest mating ritual.
Yes, some of that was due to a severely diminished quality of play and the luck-of-the-draw development that there were few gigantic upsets and almost no heart-palpitating finishes. But another huge strike against that time-honored rite of mud season is that seemingly every time a game threatened to become entertaining, there was a momentum-killing, life-sucking delay to review a potential flagrant foul or shot clock violation, or to determine whose fingernail knocked the ball out of bounds.
Replay proponents tell us that it’s foolish not to use all the weapons at our disposal; that it’s a way of eliminating the 2 to 3 percent of human error that the living, breathing adjudicators of the game commit. (How did they come up with that number, anyway? Oh. Duh. From watching replays.)
It has the unintended impact, however, of making the officials either lazy or squeamish. Either the guy standing two feet away from the scene fails to blow his whistle at all, because he knows his buddy in the booth will bail him out, or he calls everything under the sun for fear that his failure to do so will be exposed after further review.
Both extremes detract from the game and lead to ridiculous lapses in its flow. Social media (a major contributor to the “need” for replay, by the way) was awash with criticism of the alleged three stooges who officiated the North Carolina-Gonzaga final. I’m guilty as charged, but I’m also keenly aware that their excessive visibility stemmed from their collective fear that the “Eye in the Sky” (gratuitous 1980s song reference No. 2) was looking at them and could read their mind.
That foolishness came only 24 to 48 hours after perhaps the most egregious example to date of technology and the home audience trampling all over the sanctity of a sporting event. Even if you don’t care a whit about women’s golf, you probably picked up news of the day-old, four-stroke penalty that ultimately cost Lexi Thompson a victory at the ANA Inspiration, an LPGA major championship. Hopefully you read Justin Pelletier’s definitive column about the matter.
In short, some letter-of-the-law do-gooder with time on his hands and a gnawing need to play “gotcha” contacted the sanctioning body from his underground bunker. The on-site officials then threw the book at Thompson on Sunday for a piddling pseudo-violation that impacted her Saturday results not one scintilla.
It was a classic case of prison time for a parking ticket. The LPGA took a lashing in the town square of public opinion, and rightfully so. That said, I also sympathize with the position it was put in. With a thousand cameras capturing the leaders’ every move at any golf tournament in 2017, there is nowhere to hide. And if the corner is cut around one rule, however foolish and stuffy that rule is, where is the line when assessing the next penalty for a more impactful violation?
The same silliness pervades professional and college sports. Pick your favorite one and I can say with relative confidence that its appeal has been diminished by the excessive use of replay in the name of progress. Football and baseball’s replay procedures are absurdly convoluted and time-consuming. It also has led to the rewriting of rules in the interest of clarification, only to make them cloudier than if they were written in Swahili.
Don’t believe me? OK, go ahead: Define “completed catch” in the NFL. I’ll be here all day. And most likely I’ll be here waiting for a call to be overturned in whatever game I’m watching.
We’ve put ourselves in this situation, folks, and myself included. We’re the ones who ridicule officials when they blow a call that seems obvious to us after watching it from a dozen different angles at a full spectrum of speeds (Don Denkinger, 1985 World Series, comes to mind.) It is we who demanded satisfaction and gratification, and therefore essentially demanded replay.
Our demands haven’t eliminated the frail, human element. Keep in mind that the replay administrator is likely a retired official whose body (read: “eyes”) betrayed him in real time.
Call me crazy, but I liked sports better when fewer machines were involved. Getting it right most of the time without massive delays and excessive everyman involvement is superior, in my view, to still getting it right only most of the time and facing all the collateral consequences.
If I’m a lone ranger, so be it. I’ll be what I am. Solitary man. Neil Diamond and ESPN’s rock ‘n’ roll dreamer emeritus would be proud.
Kalle Oakes was a 27-year veteran of the Sun Journal sports department. He is now sports editor of the Georgetown (Kentucky) News-Graphic. You may reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.