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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Major League Soccer

T he first time video review was used to make an officiating decision was during the 1968 Winter Olympic Games in Grenoble, France. Officials used video supplied by ABC-TV to determine the result of a ski race.

Video review was officially introduced into American sports by the United States Football League in 1985, the league’s last season. It has been part of our sporting culture ever since. But today there are indications the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of technology and that replay is being utilized in situations for which it never was intended.

A clear indication of this is the change the Canadian Football League made during their 2017 season. Now, a professional sports league instituting a rule change in midseason is virtually unprecedented. But the CFL did just that.

On July 30, prior to the eighth week of the 21-week regular season, the league announced that effective immediately, coaches would be limited to one challenge per game instead of two.

Previously, the CFL’s protocol was similar to the NFL’s. Coaches were entitled to two challenges per game and received a third if the first two were successful and they still had a timeout remaining. But in the CFL, virtually any judgment call can be challenged, and that provision was impeding the flow of the game.

Glen Johnson, who recently retired as the league’s senior vice president for football after a 28-year career as an official and administrator, said that coaches were increasingly using replay to manipulate the flow of the game rather than for its intended purpose of correcting obvious errors.

“(Video review) would really slow down the flow and the pace of the game,” he said, “and they were using it on very close plays to maybe stop a drive. It was a momentum-changer; maybe halfway through the second quarter you’re driving and this play would be the difference between maybe continuing to score a touchdown or kicking a field goal or maybe taking a team out of field goal range or stuff like that. Which is really never what replay was intended for.

“It was never intended to officiate the game in the middle of the second quarter. It was always there to fix an obvious mistake that was indisputably wrong for whatever reason; an official got blocked out or didn’t have the right angle. Television had a different angle that clearly showed something happened or didn’t happen.”

Johnson says he’s concerned by replay’s increasing impact on other sports. “When I watch the other sports, I see the same thing kind of happening,” he said. “Where (replay) is overused to try to officiate to perfection. And perfection is not a good thing in sport.

“The whole notion of sport is to take two teams or two people and then let’s play something. One is going to win and one is going to lose because one was better that day. But if both teams were perfect the score would be tied and nobody would win.

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Officials are chasing the last 2-4 percent of perfection

“The same is true in officiating. Perfection is a bad thing to chase. The accuracy rates are in the high 90s already and we’re chasing this last 2, 3, or 4 percent of perfection at the expense of the flow of the game, at the expense of the fan experience, the expense of momentum breakers. There are so many things we’re using (replay) for that we shouldn’t be using it for.”

The NFL was targeted by critics in 2017-2018 for prolonged reviews, particularly on pass plays.

Dean Blandino touched on the limits of replay technology in a story published in the 1/17 issue of Referee. At the time he was still employed as the NFL’s vice president officiating, a post he held from 2013-16. In the story, Blandino touched on the limits of replay technology. “Replay is a great tool,” he said. “It allows us to fix certain mistakes that can occur but it can’t take the place of the onfield official, that human element. So we’re always trying to maintain that proper balance.”

But as the role of replay expands, the role of the onfield officiating crew has to a certain extent been marginalized. When replay was first introduced, the final decision typically rested with the referee or crew chief. Now, a replay official often not on site has the ultimate authority, which can create the impression the replay official is looking for justification to overturn the call on the field.

That’s not the case in soccer, however. When the video assistant referee (VAR) was introduced into the sport last year, it was done with the idea the VAR was present to aid the referee on the field, and correct obvious errors rather than to act as the “ultimate arbiter” and overrule judgment decisions.

However, in some cases, the urge to utilize the technology proved overwhelming. When the VAR was introduced in Australia’s A League, there were complaints the video official was being overly intrusive.

In January 2018, however, English clubs Chelsea and Norwich met in London to play their third-round FA Cup match. The score was tied, 1-1, after regulation.

Over the course of 30 minutes of extra time, there were three occasions in which attacking Chelsea players went down in the penalty area. In all three instances, referee Graham Scott decided against awarding a penalty. All three plays were reviewed by the VAR at normal speed, who saw no reason to overrule him. Chelsea eventually prevailed on penalty kicks.

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Joe Borgia, the NBA’s senior vice president of replay and referee operations, said that in situations involving player contact, normal-speed reviews are preferable.

“When we do a replay for flagrant fouls, we find it necessary to show it in normal speed and slow motion,” Borgia said. “Slow motion can be misleading as to hard contact or how fast a windup came. Slow motion is great to prove that (a player) maybe hit somebody in the head as opposed to the shoulder, but you need to see regular speed to actually see the impact of (the contact).”

Borgia says the ideal is striking a balance between game flow and utilizing replay to get calls correct. “That’s a very fine line,” he said.

Borgia noted the NBA game is interrupted for replay reviews only rarely. “We average under two replays a game,” he said. “I think it’s 1.88 per game and roughly 50 percent of those replays are done during a timeout or period break. So in reality, the NBA only has one replay per game that upsets game flow.

“That’s how we set our rules up, to have as little influence on the game flow as possible, yet be able to correct errors that can be corrected during dead balls and timeouts.”

Borgia said it’s a mistake to assume replay is the ultimate solution for every game situation. “I think too many people have a misunderstanding of what replay is for,” he said. “Replay is not to correct every potential error in a game. There’s a human element to a sport but there is also a human element to seeing what you can see.”

Borgia points out that some events happen more quickly than can be detected by the human eye. “We had two dozen plays last year decided by 1/60th of a second,” he said. “A human being can’t see that.”

What’s the bottom line? Replay has proven to be a useful officiating aid. But replay advocates should be aware that the technology has its limitations.

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Note: This article is archival in nature. Rules, interpretations, mechanics, philosophies and other information may or may not be correct for the current year.

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