As video technology has improved in the digital age, it has become easier and easier for the viewing audience to see when a sporting official has royally screwed up a call. Instant replay, extra cameras, high-definition television, slow-motion, spot-shadowing, and even DVR have given the fan the ability to second-guess and third-guess the call on the field. It has become such a part of sports that Fox now employs a replay specialist (former NFL VP of Officiating Mike Pereira) for its weekly NFL games, and the rise of the Internet and 24-hour sports networks has put officiating under a stronger microscope than ever before.
In the wake of this technology, one would expect that the rules of officiating and the officials themselves would improve along with the technology. Sadly, that does not seem to be the case. In fact, the generally held opinion is that officiating in sports is worse than ever. To the average observer, the failure of officiating crews, particularly at key moments in important games, has become an epidemic. It may be that the umps have always been blind, and that the microscope is simply making things more visible, But with minor exceptions, sports leagues have failed spectacularly to keep up with the pace of technology. This piece examines popular sports leagues, mostly in the United States, and where and how they have failed.
Since 2006, NCAA football has allowed instant replay to be used if the home team expresses that desire. An additional person, known as the Replay Official, who resides in a booth somewhere above the playing field, can signal down to the on-field referees when a replay is warranted. In addition, coaches can demand a replay challenge once per game if they have a time out. A successful challenge awards them one more challenge (for a maximum of two). In practice there are rarely coaches challenges because the Replay Officials review nearly every close play that has an impact on the game.
Replay probably would not have helped in the 2005 Alamo Bowl.
With Michigan trailing Nebraska 32-28 and time for just one more play, the Wolverines ran a hook-and-lateral play, and one of the laterals hit the ground and a scrum ensued. The Nebraska bench emptied out onto the field while the play was still going on. The last Michigan player with the football was tackled around the fifteen yard line and the game ended. No flags were thrown by the officiating crew.
This play reminds some people of The Play, Cal's miracle last-second victory over Stanford in 1982, in which the Stanford Marching Band came onto the field and potentially prevented Cardinal players from making a game-saving tackle. but there are key differences between this game and that game. In the 1982 game, every official on the field threw a flag, then huddled up to determine what the call should be. In their determination, the interference that hindered Stanford was in fact caused by Stanford, so the result of the play stood.
It's doubtful that the extra Cornhuskers on the field prevented Michigan from scoring on the play, and their were in fact some extra Michigan players on the field as well. The officiating crew should have gotten together, talked it over, and announced a decision. This would certainly have angered one side, but it would at least have given the impression that the officials had some control over the game.
Another example of poor officiating (rather than failure of the system), is the 2003 Mythical National Championship Game between the Miami Hurricanes and the Ohio State Buckeyes. With Miami ahead by a touchdown in overtime, Ohio State threw to the end zone on fourth-and-three and the ball fell incomplete. Officials, however, called pass interference on Miami, giving Ohio State one more attempt, which they converted, sending the game to a second overtime where they eventually triumphed.
National Football League
The NFL was one of the first leagues to use instant replay as part of the game, but removed it from the game after the owners voted that it slowed the pace of games too much. It was reinstated in 1999 in a convoluted form that has been tweaked in a failed attempt to make it less convoluted.
Each coach has two replay challenges per game, but these can only be used if the team has a time out remaining. A failed challenge results in the loss of a time out. Two successful challenges in a game are rewarded with a third challenge. Challenges cannot be made in the last two minutes of either half, in overtime, or (since 2011) on a scoring play, as the officiating crew is in charge of reviewing these plays if any of them are questionable.
The problem with this system is two-fold. First, the system severely limits (much more so than the NCAA) what types of calls are reviewable and which are not. For example, until 2009, the ruling of an incomplete pass could not overturned to be a fumble, but the ruling of a fumble could be overturned to be an incomplete pass1. Second, it shifts the review decision to the wrong people. The job of the head coach is to win football games. The job of the officiating crew is to make sure that all calls are correct and the game is officiated with impartiality. The NFL's system now places the burden of determining which calls are correct onto a different group. On top of that, inexplicably, it takes that power away during the part of the game where it is most important. For the majority of the game, coaches have challenge authority. Then for the final two minutes, the referees take it back.
This has been a continuing problem that has reared its ugly head in almost every Super Bowl over the past few years:
In Super Bowl XXXVI, the first touchdown was scored by New England Patriots cornerback Ty Law, who intercepted a pass and brought it back the length of the field. On the play, Kurt Warner suffered a hit to the helmet by Mike Vrabel, which should have been a fifteen-yard penalty and an automatic first down for the Rams.
In Super Bowl XL, Darrell Jackson of the Seattle Seahawks scored what looked like the Seahawks first touchdown, but the play was called back because of offensive pass interference. Subsequent replays could not show any pass interference. Later in this game, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was flagged for an illegal block below the knees while making a tackle on a defensive player who had the ball.2
In Super Bowl XLII, David Tyree made one of the most incredible catches in Super Bowl history, clasping the ball against his helmet as he was driven to the turf. His miracle catch kept the Giants drive alive, and they would later score the go-ahead touchdown to beat the undefeated Patriots. Reviews of the play quite clearly show Patriots linemen Richard Seymour being held at the line of scrimmage, a ten-yard penalty that would have nullified the catch.
Now a question arises in these examples. Aren't holding, pass interference, and roughing the passer judgment calls on the part of the officials? Couldn't, as is often stated, an offensive lineman be called for holding on every play if the rules are followed to the letter. Well, yes. The examples above were not provided to make a case for allowing them to be replayed. They are provided to show a systemic failure of officiating in big game situations. This failure culminated with Super Bowl XLIII, which is an excellent example of how bad officiating and a bad replay system left a sour taste in the mouth of many football fans.
On the initial drive of Super Bowl XLIII, the Pittsburgh Steelers had a 3rd-and-1 at the 1 yard line, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger attempted to run the ball in himself. Referees initially signaled touchdown, and Arizona challenged. The play was reversed and the Steelers had to kick a field goal instead.3
Near the end of the first half, the Cardinals were on the doorstop of the end zone when James Harrison picked off a pass and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown. Because it was within the last two minutes of the half, Arizona could not challenge the play, but the officiating crew did indeed look at the play to see whether or not Harrison crossed the plane of the goal line with the ball. They ruled that he did. However, because of the rules about what can be reviewed and what cannot be reviewed, the crew missed and then ignored, in real time and then on replay, a clear block in the back by LaMarr Woodley on Tim Hightower, which would have nullified the touchdown.
On the first drive of the third quarter, Kurt Warner was hit while releasing the ball, and the play was ruled a fumble. Arizona again challenged and again won the challenge. This was potentially important because Arizona had now challenged successfully twice and thus has one challenge left (in the end, it did not matter because no more challenges were made).3
With thirty five seconds left to go in the game, Santonio Holmes made a miracle catch in the corner of the end zone to give the Steelers the lead. This play was reviewed by the officiating crew and is upheld. After eighteen more seconds ticked off the clock, Arizona had the ball just past midfield and were in desperate but decent field position. Kurt Warner avoided the rush for several seconds, then lost the ball as he was hit while attempting to throw. The ball was recovered by Pittsburgh. Arizona could not challenge, and the officials choose not to review the play. Game over.
If you've followed football at all in the last decade, you've seen this before. In the 2001 AFC Divisional Playoff, the same thing happened to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Officials looked at instant replay for what seemed like an eternity, then ruled that the play was an incomplete pass under the then little-known Tuck Rule. The Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl that season. Would the Cardinals have gone on to win the Super Bowl if this play had been ruled an incomplete pass instead of a fumble? No one will ever know, because the referees didn't do their job.
Major League Baseball
Oh, stubborn Major League Baseball. How they fought tooth-and-nail against instant replay. How they fought any change at all in umpiring procedure. Not long ago, when an umpire made a call, a manager couldn't even ask that umpire to confer with the three other officials on the field to be sure the call was correct. This was considered "showing up the umpire" and could get a manager ejected.
Halfway through the 2008 season, MLB added a limited replay system for verification of home runs, in response to growing criticism about umpiring crews' inability to determine a home run from a foul ball or a ball caught by a fan in the field of play. Fans of the Baltimore Orioles may lament that this technology was available in 1996 when Yankees fan Jeffrey Maier reached out and snared a Derek Jeter fly ball, which umpire Rich Garcia ruled a home run4. This tied the game, and the Bronx Bombers went on to win in eleven innings on their way to a World Series title. MLB's instant replay policy would have changed that call, but it still wouldn't have prevented what happened to Armando Galarraga last season.
In the history of Major League Baseball there have been over 200,000 games played5, and only twenty of those have been perfect games6. On June 2, 2010, a very average pitcher named Armando Galarraga was one out away from throwing the twenty-first. Cleveland Indian Jason Donald grounded a ball between first and second. First baseman Miguel Cabrera fielded it cleanly and fired to Galarraga, who beat Donald to first base to complete the feat and make history.
Only first base umpire Jim Joyce didn't see it that way. He called Donald safe, ending the perfect game (and no-hit bid). The next batter Trevor Crowe grounded out to third to end the game. Minutes later, after Joyce saw the replay and learned what everyone else who was watching already knew, he apologized to Galarraga, and later held a tearful press conference.7
To make matters worse for MLB, the system is not even applied consistently within the same inning. In a 2010 playoff game between the Yankees and Rangers, Robinson Cano hit a fly ball that was interfered with by fans but ruled a home run, and the umpires refused to use instant replay. Two batters later Lance Berkman hit a fly ball down the right field line that was ruled a home run, but umpires reviewed it and reversed the call to a foul ball.8
Major League Baseball has made other attempts to use technology to improve officiating. Most notable is their implementation of the QuesTec system9, which can determine balls and strikes in real time and compare that data with an umpire's calls in order to grade accuracy. Pitchers have criticized the system, as umpires are known to change how they call balls and strikes depending on whether the game is being played in a park that uses the QuesTec system. According to pitcher Curt Schilling, who once destroyed a QuesTec machine with a baseball bat, umpires have told him, "It's a pitch I want to call a strike but the machine won't let me."10 This does not seem like the best way to ensure fairness.
The FIFA system is a joke. Here's how it works: no replay, ever. As a result of this, coupled with the fervor of soccer fans worldwide, referees who make poor calls actually put themselves in danger of physical retribution. It is not uncommon for a referee to receive death threats or to be removed from the officiating crew by FIFA. FIFA believes that instituting replay would undermine the decisions of its referees, ignoring events like Frank Lampard's non-goal against Germany in the 2010 World Cup, where the ball was at least a full yard across the goal line but was disallowed by the referees.
It's difficult to choose one particular example of FIFA's problem, but Thierry Henry's handball against Ireland seems like as good as any. The second half of the game actually ended with Ireland ahead one-nil, but in order to advance to the World Cup Finals, the aggregate score over multiple games was the deciding factor, so Ireland and France were "tied" in a sense, and thus extra time and if necessary penalty kicks would decide who got that 32nd spot in South Africa. France lined up for a free kick, and drove it into the box, where it appeared a French player was off-side. No call was made, and the ball eventually settled near Thierry Henry. He patted it with his hand once, twice, then flicked it to William Gallas, who put home the equalizer in the 103rd minute. There was no further scoring, and France advanced on aggregate score. Henry later admitted to handling the ball, saying (correctly) it was the referee's fault for not making the call.11
Nearly every recent major soccer event has seen egregious errors made by officials. The United States men's team had the go-ahead goal disallowed in a World Cup match against Slovenia when referee Koman Coulibaly called a foul on the U.S. side. No explanation was given for what the foul was and who it was against12. Similarly, both goals scored by Brazil against the United States women's team in the 2011 World Cup came after questionable calls by officials (one on an encroachment call, the other on a off-sides call that was that missed)13. To the many who firmly believe that soccer is rigged by the governing body, these sorts of calls, coupled with a lack of explanation, do nothing but confirm that belief.
National Basketball Association
The NBA was late to implement instant replay but appears to have, by far, the best current system. The system allows video replay to be used to determine whether a shot is worth two points or three, and whether or not a shot was released before time expired (either on the shot clock or the game clock). The NBA attempts to keep the flow of the game intact at the expense of stopping it for review, so determinations on a shot's value (two or three points) are typically made during stoppages of play (it is rare but not unheard of for a scoring change to be made in the fourth quarter on a shot that was made in the first half). The NBA does not have much reason to expand the system, but has also used it to determine which players should face immediate discipline after a fight.
The last truly questionable call in the NBA that didn't relate to a personal foul was probably the infamous 2002 Western Conference Finals. The Lakers won Game 4 over the Kings by a single point, but the first half ended with a Samaki Walker three-pointer that counted despite being shot after time had expired. (This series is also notable in that it is believed by many, including the FBI, to have been fixed by the NBA in the Lakers' favor.14, 15, 16)
National Hockey League
The NHL, too, has a replay system that was implemented later than it needed to be, but appears to address the needs of the league. A goal judge reviews goals to determine whether or not the puck crossed the goal line, or whether or not an offensive player was within the goal crease. Much to the chagrin of Buffalo Sabres fans, instant replay was used to uphold Brett Hull's goal that won the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals. The play was ruled a goal by referees, but it appeared that Hull was illegally in the crease when he put the puck in the net. A review of play showed that Hull has entered the crease legally, and thus the goal was upheld.17
There is no perfect, definitive solution for any particular sport, but there are some overarching themes that must apply to all sports.
First and foremost, every sport must have a replay system of some sort. There is no longer any case to be made for allowing human error to impact the outcome of sporting events when the technology exists to correct those errors with little or no cost.
Second, every attempt must be made to eliminate the need for instant replay. Major League Baseball employs six umpires for playoff games, but only four for regular season games. Why not use six for all games? The NFL started with only three on-field officials and now has seven, and has experimented with an eighth, a clear response to the difficulty in officiating a faster moving game. The NBA should consider adding a fourth referee as well.
Third, the replay system should be ruled over by a third party uninvolved with on-court activities, whether that be officiating or coaching. This is well-handled by the NCAA's Replay Official and other sports should consider it.
Fourth, the replay system must allow for a team to challenge an on-field call when the replay official does not do so himself. The system should not impose a significant penalty for doing so, but should also not allow for abuse of the system either.
Finally, the replay system must intrude as little as possible on the flow of the game. In many situations play cannot reasonably continue until the outcome of the previous play is determined, and in those cases a stoppage of play is required but should be kept to a minimum. In cases where play can continue without a decision, the review should take place asynchronously and communicated to the on-field officials when convenient.
All of the leagues mentioned above (with the exception of FIFA) meet at least some of these criteria. By evaluating the pros and cons of each system, every sporting league can implement a fair and efficient system that will put the majority of poor officiating to rest.