Was it the corporate rock band Styx or the great philosopher Homer Simpson who famously declared, “The problem’s plain to see: Too much technology?”
In either case, it’s truer now than it was then, and the trickle-down effect is killing the games that used to be our escape from everything else.
No, seriously. If you don’t think instant replay has destroyed sports, I can’t help you. Last week’s was-it-a-touchdown-or-not disaster involving the Jets’ Austin Seferian-Jenkins in the Patriots’ game and a flurry of slow-mo, buzz-killing foolishness in the baseball playoffs are only the latest examples.
Replay enhanced everything about the fan experience 30 and 40 years ago. It furnished the chance to appreciate otherworldly accomplishments or head-scratching blunders we might have missed in real time. It provided the cornerstone for our favorite nighttime viewing, back when there was one 24-hour sports network and it actually broadcast, you know, highlights and stuff.
Today, it’s like every other tool that has been misused thanks to our collective adoration of excess. The proliferation of replay as “part of the game” reflects our pathological obsessions with being right and getting the last word.
The natural extension of that, of course, is that we are increasingly wrong, both literally and practically speaking. As the Patriots-Jets and every close call in the National League Championship Series left Cubs manager Joe Maddon apoplectic showed us, it is possible to watch a play from so many angles that we lose track of what we’re seeing and it loses all meaning.
Or at least we lose touch with the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Replay was supposed to save us from Don Denkinger determining who wins the World Series. It wasn’t intended to decide that a guy who slid into third base two seconds ahead of a throw is out because high-definition showed his leg coming off the bag by a micrometer after the play was essentially over.
Just because technology is available doesn’t mean it should be exercised without restraint or consideration for how it impacts the game. And what we failed to foresee three decades ago, when allowing replay to adjudicate pro and college sports on a limited basis, is that the human element sitting behind a desk and administering the technology would become even flawed than the ones on the field supervising it live.
So we’ve made what already are time-sensitive games intolerably longer and subjected the results to hyper-interpretation that the developers of those games never intended. What we hoped would prevent scoring plays and changes of possession from being handled wrongly has soared to a level of absurdity that mirrors everything else in the world.
We review EV-e-ry-thing. And setting a time limit on the process doesn’t help, either, because the head referee or umpire has to run off the field to a tunnel or somewhere else he can put on a headset and wait for some guy in a suit to pull rank on him.
Which leads us to perhaps the biggest problem of all: Replay has wreaked havoc with the quality of officiating by erasing all incentive to make correct calls in the first place. Any close call is going to be examined, so the guy being paid to facilitate a show unfolding two feet in front of his eyeballs simply waves his arms halfheartedly and waits for due process to take its course.
Those old studies that told us umpires made the right call 98 to 99 percent weren’t good enough for us. We started demanding 100 percent satisfaction, and somehow we ended up with a quality of officiating that is weaker than ever. And it isn’t because the boys dressed in navy blues or black-and-white stripes are old or fat or legally blind, or because the game is moving too quickly for them. It’s on us for asking them to stand in the way while giving most of the power to camera operators.
Funny we ever thought that would solve the problems. We live in amazing times. You could pick five adults randomly off the street, show then a video about anything, and no two of them would agree on what they saw. We’re at the point where we see the world through our own goggles, even at the exclusion of logic and common sense.
Replay can’t be used successfully unless common sense prevails, and that strikes me as an obvious reason to get rid of it entirely. And yes, I say that as a Patriots fan, for whom one of five Super Bowl titles was a direct result of replay (tuck rule vs. Oakland) and another was legitimized by it (Julian Edelman’s catch vs. Atlanta).
Oh, and this idea that replay should be used to settle some questions in high school games: Are you kidding me? Youth sports already are struggling due to a lack of officials, an increase in spectator hooliganism, athlete specialization and our insistence on raising our kids in bubble wrap. Putting the games in the press box purview might be the death knell.
The problem’s plain to see, indeed. We’re so busy insisting upon perfection that we’ve forgotten how good we used to have it.
Kalle Oakes was a 27-year veteran of the Sun Journal sports department. He is now sports editor of the Georgetown (Kentucky) News-Graphic. Keep in touch with him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @oaksie72.