Sunday, October 14, 2012

Is instant replay the answer to sports officiating? Be careful what you wish for!

How would you like a job where everything you do is captured by video cameras from multiple angles? Then, that recording is replayed for your customers, supervisors and shareholders. They watch you work task by task and evaluate your performance.

Sounds like a job from hell, right? Welcome to big league professional and college sports officiating. A few weeks ago, our country was up in arms about replacement NFL officials who got a game ending touchdown call wrong. If there’s one thing we learned during the lockout of NFL refs, it’s how good those officials are.

Major League Baseball’s postseason has already had a number of officiating blunders, including a blown infield-fly-rule call in the National League's Wild Card contest between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Atlanta Braves. Today, an umpire tossed out New York Yankee Manager, Joe Girardi, after the skipper argued about a call the ump blew on a tag at second base.

Managers kicking dirt on the umpire’s shoes is part of what makes baseball a boy’s game played by men. So, is the human factor that decides bang-bang plays. Everybody likes to jaw about the mistakes officials make in pro sports. We forget all the times the cameras prove the official was dead right when we thought he needed to see his eye doctor.

Yet, the talk today on TBS after Girardi hit the showers early was that something needed to be done about the umpiring mistakes and instant replay might be the answer.

As a former television director, I can confidently tell you cameras lie even more than politicians. Angles can create the illusion of reality that can deceive even the savviest viewer. In fact, we use a term in the business called “cheat”. That’s when actors position themselves in a way that makes them appear to be facing or looking in a different direction than they actually are. I can easily make two performers look like their talking face to face, when they’re really reading cue cards over the other’s shoulder.

Roll that concept into the equation when people scream for more instant replays to decide the results of athletic events. The sad part is that sports were once played for the fans in the stands. Now, they’re all about the TV audience. Players don’t pitch, run, throw, catch, interfere, kick, skate, hold, dribble, stick handle, spear, and shoot in slow motion. But replays painstakingly occur in super-slow-motion, at frame-by-frame rates with stop action freezes to split milliseconds. By the way, there are 30 frames in a single second of video, and each frame has two fields. Not football or baseball fields, but electronically interlaced images.

Pitchers hurl fastballs well in excess of 90 miles per hour. Speed demons run 40-yard passing routes in less than 4.3 seconds. Pucks clank off crossbars in less than the blink of an eye, and desperation basketball treys are launched as hundredths of seconds tick down. If you think you can officiate a sports contest better than the zebras and the guys in blue, think again.

Sure, there are memorable mistakes like the night umpire Jim Joyce cost Detroit Tiger pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game, because he blew a call on what should have been the final out. Joyce later cried real tears about his error and Galarraga forgave him. The reason we remember those events is because they are so rare.

I don’t know about you, but I prefer to watch my sports in real time. I can’t imagine baseball being any slower or enduring more breaks in the action of a football game. Besides, if we relied on replays to decide everything, we’d miss the fun of watching all those coaches and managers stomping their feet, waving their fingers and throwing tantrums.

Go Tigers and enjoy the World Series.

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