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The Good And The Bad Of Video Replay In Sports

The Seattle Seahawks, 2.5-point favorites at Bovada sportsbook, were trailing on the scoreboard in their game against the Los Angeles Rams but had the ball and were on the move downfield. Wide Receiver D.K. Metcalf ran a sideline pattern. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson hit Metcalf just as he arrived at the out of bounds line . . . or did he?

Game officials ruled that Metcalf was out of bounds and called the pass an incompletion. Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll threw his red bean bag on the field, the signal in the NFL that indicates a coach is protesting the call.

Upon further review, the video replay official agreed with Carroll and the call was overturned. It was ruled a catch.

Good for the Seahawks. Great for Seattle fans. Good for football?

That depends on who you ask.

On the one hand, it’s always good to get things right. On the other hand, doing the right thing takes a lot longer. And that’s becoming a problem for professional sports.

NFL First To Utilize Instant Replay

The NFL first began studying the use of video replay to help officials in 1976 and eventually implemented it as an option for the 1986 season. However, the drawback to ensuring that the correct call was made was that the clock on the actual time elapsed in order to play 60 minutes of football was logging a longer span.

A study undertaken by the analytics site fivethirtyeight.com showed that between 2008-16, the average time for an NFL game increased from 3:02.39 to 3:09.01. One measure the league took to combat the lengthening game was to shorten the allowable time for a video review from 90 to 60 seconds. However, any benefit gained from that move was absorbed by the fact that more plays were being reviewed. That number jumped from 1.2 to 1.7 reviews per game.

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Between 1999-2019, the NFL reviewed 7,111 plays. The average length of those reviews was 2:38.

The Conundrum Of Replay

The heads of the major sports organizations recognize that while it would be foolhardy not to take advantage of every technological advancement, it is a double-edged sword.

The NHL has heard its fair share of criticism over coach’s challenges issued on goals as to whether the play was offside. Quite often, when the play is reviewed, a player’s skate blade might be a whisker offside. This is where another conundrum of replay arises. Yes, by the spirit of the rule, that player might be a centimetre offside. But did that really impact the outcome of the play? Is it really a valid reason to take away a goal in a sport that is starved for scoring?

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman doesn’t seem to think so. “We only want challenges where it’s crystal clear that an egregious mistake has been made,” Bettman told NHL.com.

Soccer is finding a similar issue with its virtual assisted referee (VAR). Replays on penalty kicks are calling goalkeepers for being a hair too soon off their line when they make a save and are ordering the kick to be retaken. England women’s World Cup goalkeeper Karen Bardsley described this level of nitpicking to be both “cruel and pedantic.”

“Every time you decide you are going to increase the use of technology of video there are, and the managers will tell you we’ve said this repeatedly, unintended consequences,” Bettman said.

Why Can’t Human Error Be Accepted?

Sports fans accept that goalies will occasionally flub easy shots, quarterbacks will throw interceptions and pitchers will serve up home run balls. Often, a tight game in any sport will be decided by the team which has the player who makes the first mistake. In fact, if everyone played a perfect game and no mistakes were ever made, sports would frequently be fairly boring to watch.

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Yet these same sports fans steadfastly demand utter perfection from game officials in all sports. Human error on their part can never be forgiven, or accepted as another element of the game.

As long as that remains the case, fans must forego the privilege to complain about tedious video replay stoppages. If they can’t accept any errors on the part of the officials, then they must accept video replay and along with it, that the games they watch are going to take longer to play.