At the heart of instant replay review in sports, there are good intentions. And in most cases, there are even correct outcomes.
But now that we are several decades into the concept of replay overturning outcomes — the NFL’s first system started in 1986! — there’s also this strange lingering sentiment: If something is never going to be perfect, at what point are there diminishing (or even reversed) returns on attempt to improve it?
Because right now the things that aren’t currently reviewable (or are inconclusive) seem to make those involved at the highest levels of sports madder than ever, and reviewing every little thing would make people even madder than that.
The most recent example: The St. Louis Blues were beyond mad about a hand pass that wasn’t called before San Jose scored an overtime goal Wednesday to take a 2-1 series lead in the Western Conference Finals.
Blues GM Doug Armstrong was overheard yelling an expletive and calling it a “garbage” decision. But none of the officials on the ice saw it. And as NHL series director Kay Whitmore explained after the game, it falls into that dreaded category: non-reviewable.
“It’s a non-reviewable play. You can read between the lines. You can figure out what you want. You watched the video. But it’s just non-reviewable. I know that sounds like a cop-out answer, but that’s the truth,” Whitmore told reporters afterward, basically admitting it was a bad call but that there was nothing that could be done.
Whitmore also noted that NHL executives might fight to make the play reviewable in the future. If that sounds familiar, check the NFL — where the NFC title game last season was heavily influenced by a non-reviewable non-call after Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis was hit before a pass arrived.
Guess what’s reviewable now? Pass interference. That’s fine, and all the data suggests pass interference penalties can have huge impacts on games.
But pass interference is also heavily subjective in many cases. This probably will incite just as many arguments as it attempts to alleviate.
The larger point, though, is this: When there is a decision made about what is reviewable and what isn’t, there is inevitably going to be something that’s still left behind. And focusing on plays that seemingly have the greatest impact will never be enough for everyone — nor will it ever really be fair.
In Major League Baseball, for instance, balls and strikes aren’t reviewable. But every single missed call on a pitch has a major influence on the rest of the at bat — putting either the hitter or the pitcher at a disadvantage.
In the NBA for the last decade, out-of-bounds rulings determining possession have been reviewable, but only in the final two minutes of regulation or overtime. That only extends the fallacy that plays at the end of a game are more important than those that happen earlier. Like a missed call with 8 minutes left in a close game isn’t important?
The only truly fair system is one in which either everything that happens can be fixed by review or nothing that happens can be fixed. At this point, I might prefer the latter.
Anything else is a flawed system disguised as incremental progress.