Saturday, October 24, 2009

Video Killed the Officiating Star

Video Killed the Officiating Star

The best thing that ever happened to sports was television -- unless you officiate sports. 

Ask the umpiring team that is handling the American League Championship Series and blew two calls in Game 4 on Tuesday night. Ask the SEC football officials who were suspended on Wednesday. The crew was punished after the conference determined the crew was mistaken on Saturday in flagging an Arkansas player for a late hit on a Florida player. The call allowed Florida to continue its final touchdown drive in a game it won 23-20.

Ask the replacement NBA referees who whistled Sixers' Willie Green for a foul on Washington's Mike James on Tuesday night as James attempted a desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer. The instant replay showed Green never touched James, who was given three free throws and won the game at the line.

Replay. It's become the new four-letter word to game officials.

"I'm just out there trying to do my job and do it the best I can," Tim McClelland told the media after the two erroneous calls he made Tuesday in the Yankees' win over the Angels. "Unfortunately, there was, by instant replay, two missed calls."

McClelland graduated to the big leagues in 1983 when he famously disallowed a George Brett home run because there was more than the allowed amount of pine tar on Brett's bat. He is largely considered the best umpire in baseball. But even the sharpest eyes and judgment in the game can't compete with technology, and they shouldn't have to.

We've been living with instant replay in this country for nearly half a century now, ever since the fourth quarter of the Dec. 7, 1963, Army-Navy Game. That was when CBS, encouraged by a director named Tony Verna, showed a one-yard touchdown run by Army's Rollie Stichweh for a second time immediately after it happened. It prompted CBS announcer Lindsey Nelson to famously tell the TV audience, "This is not live! Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again!"

That was one replay in one game of one play that was not up for question. At the Angels' stadium on Tuesday night, we witnessed several replays of two questionable calls captured by multiple cameras from myriad vantage points. The Zapruder film hasn't been dissected so much.
When a replay is shown on a big screen and shows the official was wrong, but the game continues on as if nothing happened, we not only have a problem, we have something worse: fraud.

The Angels' fans in attendance saw the replays too on the stadium's giant TV screen. So did the umpire who erred, McClelland, and there was nothing he could do to correct his mistake. He was only left to look the rest of the night like the heel he isn't.

That's as unfair a punishment as the incorrect call is to the team that suffers it, and it is time to bring an end to it. If we can see it and it is wrong, then it should be corrected, plain, short and simple. What's wrong with recall? We're accustomed to it in politics and the car industry.

I don't want to hear anymore about how getting it right can be so wrong because it might take too long and slow down our games and take the human element out of the contests by diminishing the role of officials. We don't live like the Flintstones anymore; we live like the Jetsons, and the second edition of The Jetsons stopped being made over 20 years ago.

I don't want replay restricted to home run calls, which baseball started last season, or possession plays in football or buzzer-beaters in basketball. Leave judgment calls -- balls and strikes, pass interference, etc. -- out of consideration for review and leave everything else eligible for a second look. Bang-bang plays at first. Facemask pulls that aren't caught. If a couple guys in a booth can't figure it out in due time, let's turn to a few guys on a couch with a six-pack in front of a 52-inch HDTV with a remote control at the ready and a DVR. We're not talking about rocket science. We're talking about the innate ability to watch television. Hockey understands

When a replay is shown on a big screen and shows the official was wrong, but the game continues on as if nothing happened, we not only have a problem, we have something worse: fraud. 

The time has long gone when bad calls are lore. Now bad calls are lies and the impact can be dramatic. After all, the SEC crew that got suspended for making a call that further video review showed was wrong may have influenced the bogus national championship game that the BCS gives us. Take away the score that resulted for Florida and all of a sudden the polls look different and another school is in line for the national title loot. 

Most of us who simply watch games seem to be in favor of instant replay to correct mistakes, according to polls taken over the years like a small one taken recently byThe Los Angeles Times. It is management that more often wrestles with the notion, particularly that which represents officials.

"Not only is pace of game an issue but the continued expansion of replay potentially takes away from the spirit of the game," Lamell McMorris, chief negotiator for the World Umpires Association, told on Wednesday. "Part of the game is the potential for human error, not just from umpires, but players, that's part of the spirit of the game. It happens."

But with officials, it no longer has to.

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