April 20, 2018

Replay Review Has No Place in Football

Ben Gutstein ’20

The Chicago Bears are driving against the New Orleans Saints with a shot at winning the game. The Bears quarterback, Mitch Trubisky, drops back to pass and throws the ball to his veteran tight end, Zach Miller. Miller looks like he magically made the catch and it is called a touchdown.
The twist of this play was that on the catch, Miller sustained a career-ending injury. The referees reviewed the play and decided to overturn the call, saying that Miller dropped the ball. Looking back on the play, it is clear Miller caught the ball. The referees’ first instinct was correct.
The final play of Miller’s 10-season career should have been a touchdown. Instead, his heroic play was overturned by the referees’ poor decision following a replay review. Although replays seem like an important part of modern day football officiating, it is clear that the referees should not rely on them because they lead to mistakes and a decrease in enjoyment of the sport.
The advent of sports replays, especially in a fast-moving sport such as football, has negatively impacted the integrity of the game because it introduces an altered interpretation of events that is not always accurate.
Traditionally, officiating in football has been done in real-time, which takes advantage of the instincts and judgement of the referees at the time of the play. A key component of contact sports is the referees’ ability to focus on the play at hand and make calls in the context of the flow of the game. With replays, however, events can appear different from how they looked in real-time, which can lead to mistakes.
A famous example of how replay can deceive the referees occurred when the officials disagreed during a Monday Night Football game on September 24, 2012, when the Seattle Seahawks played the New Orleans Saints. It was an extremely close game and at the end of the fourth quarter, the Seahawks were down five when they found themselves with one final opportunity at a touchdown.
The Seahawks’ quarterback, Russell Wilson, lobbed the ball to wide receiver Golden Tate, who was being guarded by five Packers defenders. The referees ran towards the play and one called it a touchdown whereas the other referee called it an interception. No one understood what the true call was and they decided to go to the instant replay booth.
On first review, it appeared that the ball was intercepted by Packers’ defender Sam Shields, but the slow-motion replay made it look as if Tate caught the ball simultaneously. Most fans agreed Shields probably caught the ball first, which would make it an interception, but after the replay, the referees declared the play a simultaneous catch, which is automatically credited to the offense. Had they focused on the opinion of the referee with the better view – the one who called an interception – they would have gotten the call correct. In this case, the referees relied on replay which introduced an inaccurate interpretation of the course of events.
Traditionally in football, the referees confer and make a decision that relies on the referee with the best perspective at the time of the play. When replay is introduced into the interpretation of a play, the tradition of real-time officiating is lost.
Another limitation of instant replay is referees are not allowed to review penalty calls, which can often affect the outcome of a game just as much as a review of a specific play. Clearly, the NFL sees that replays can be destructive to the game and harmful to their goal of increased fan enjoyment, but they cannot, for some reason, seem to transfer that logic to all plays.
Replays can increase the accuracy of specific calls, such as the spot of the ball, but the games are lengthened tremendously due to these breaks. The average time of college and NFL games, where replays are common, is far higher than their high school counterparts, which do not have replay functions.
The average length of an NFL game is three hours and 11 minutes and the average length of a college game is three hours and 23 minutes. High school games are considerably shorter at around two hours. College games are thought to be so long because they are higher scoring, but highschool games have about an equal average total score (ATS). The ATS of an NFL game is about 40 points and the ATS of a college football game is about 56 points. The ATS of a high school football is around 55 points, but the games are far shorter.
The differences in game length can only be attributed to the surfeit of unnecessary breaks that college and NFL football fans experience. The increased frequency of replays certainly increases accuracy on some unimportant plays, such as the first down location, but other than that, they do nothing but slow down the average fan’s experience.

The overriding question that needs to answered is if we should abandon replays altogether. This issue has an obvious answer: referees should return to using their instincts to make decisions. Therefore, replays should be phased out and games should be officiated in real time. The only purpose of replays going forward should be for the sake of audiences’ enjoyment. Fans like seeing good plays repeated in slow motion, but they do not appreciate it when the referees slow down their games to review plays. Ideally, one day soon, replay review will be a thing of the past.

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