Let’s Review 50 Years of Instant Replay

Instant replay has made sports persnickety, dilatory, and faux-precise—if only we could rewind

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The Army-Navy game, Dec. 7, 1963.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the 1963 Army-Navy game. The game should have been played a week earlier, but it had been pushed back out of respect for recently slain president John F. Kennedy. Roger Staubach, who won the Heisman that year, led Navy to a 21-15 victory in Philadelphia. The win clinched Navy’s spot in the Cotton Bowl, where Texas would steamroll the Midshipmen for the national title.

But Navy almost lost to Army — or, at least, that’s how it looked to viewers at home.

The Midshipmen had a 21-7 lead with just over 10 minutes to play, but Army — thanks to quarterback Carl “Rollie” Stichweh — did not go down without a fight. With 6:19 left in the fourth quarter, Stichweh scored on a one-yard touchdown run. The score was 21-13, pending the point after. And then, as far as the hordes watching the game on CBS knew, Stichweh immediately scored again. With the exact same play. Frame for frame. Huh?

That afternoon’s CBS telecast, you see, was the first in sports history to use instant replay. The network hadn’t hyped that it was going to use this new technology — out of fear it might not work — but 29-year-old Tony Verna, who was directing the game broadcast that day, successfully showed off the powers of his washer/dryer-sized Ampex tape machine.

Did he know the Pandora’s Box he was opening?

For all the good instant-replay has done — I think here of the singular joy I experience when Cris Collinsworth singles out superlative offensive-line play on Sunday Night Football, of the egregious calls fixed over the years upon further review, and of the fact that one can now follow a hockey game on television — the technology has also given rise to a persnickety, dilatory, faux-precise replay-review system. Things have gotten out of hand.

Take hockey. The NHL has what many would consider professional sports’ best replay system. Video from all telecasts feeds into a room at the league office in Toronto, and game referees can grab a telephone through the glass in search of guidance from the poobahs there. It’s all seamless enough — there’s no need for a linesman to disappear down a tunnel, behelmeted and beskated, for the better part of five minutes. But even the closest system to perfection has its problems. The overhead camera the league uses for its goal-line reviews is mounted high above the goal itself, facilitating obstructions both above and below the crossbar (not to mention the bar itself).

So, fine, move the cameras. Supposedly a move to the goalposts may be in the works. There’s still the pesky reality of a puck trapped under a goalie’s pads, crossing the line while no one can see it. (The puck is an inch tall. It fits easily.) Toronto cannot intuit that the puck crossed the goal line, even when anyone with a loose conception of physics can.

And then there’s this little bit, from the rule book: “If the goal is confirmed by video review, the clock (including penalty time clocks, if applicable) is re-set to the time the goal was scored.” That’s right — game history can rewrite itself, as though the NHL were some sort of high-concept family-friendly comedy film. Upon further review, those five minutes never elapsed. That’s why the league ditched a proposed plan to institute video review on high-sticking penalties: The counterfactuals were too much to bear. If a goal were scored with a man advantage on a delayed phantom penalty, what would happen? Should the officials undo 30 decisive seconds because they were premised on a bad call? Or should the zebras leave their results intact because, ya know, they happened?

Or take basketball. The NBA thinks nothing of devoting three and a half minutes (and sometimes more) at a decisive point in a game to legislating the laws of physics. A basketball is a big object, consuming lots of space. Sometimes two players can touch it at the same time. Before the advent of replay review, two players touching the ball at the same time would have generated a jump ball. Or, if two players had touched the ball at the same time as it went out of bounds, but with one clearly more responsible than the other, the team of the more innocent party would wind up with possession. Now? The same thing, after an interminable delay.

It’s worst in the NFL, a game that already has more than its fair share of false precision (e.g., ball spots) and lulls in the action (e.g., most of the game). The league tried replay out first in 1986, with a replay official deciding which plays to review; the system lasted until the 1991 season. The delays weren’t worth it, owners reasoned. But a few bad calls here and there, and the system was back by 1999, with a clever wrinkle: Coaches could decide which plays to challenge. Each coach had two challenges. Fair enough.

Then the system grew. A coach who got his two challenges right would get a third. Then it grew further still. All scoring plays were exempted from the challenge cap. Then all turnovers were. If a runner fell to the ground as he was in the process of scoring, or if a ballcarrier lost his handle as he was on the way down, there would assuredly be a review. And along the way, the NFL made more types of plays reviewable, allowing the creep of the counterfactual. What if one team made the mistake of following the referee’s cue instead of allowing for all possible outcomes? The league has told its players, essentially, to disregard the officials if there’s something on the play that might possibly be overturned.

And while delays of games are one thing; utterly pointless delays of games are another still. Many NFL replay reviews yield the declaration that “The ruling on the field stands,” an acknowledgement that the ruling on the field may well have been wrong, but it might have been right, too. It’s a four-minute delay of action that ends in a shoulder-shrug. The NFL has the best camera technology money can buy, and it still can’t produce conclusive rulings.

It can, though, yield perverse outcomes, as the Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell could tell you. Bell was concussed while diving for the end zone. He hit the ground so violently that his helmet popped off as he was crossing the goal line—and that meant trouble. Thanks to a recent addition to the NFL rulebook, a play ends the instant a player loses his helmet. But the officials called the play a good touchdown on the field. Everything had happened within an instant. Under the replay-review system, which allows officials to rewrite history, the referee retroactively declared the play dead the moment Bell’s helmet had popped off. If only he could have been retroactively unconcussed, too!

Baseball, which has no running clock, seems a better fit for replay than any of the other pro sports. Reviews would slow down the game, but at least they wouldn’t rewrite history. The system has worked fairly well, if rather glacially, so far with its limited use of fair-or-foul home runs since 2008. (It could have been better, had MLB not armed its umpires with review monitors smaller than any decent nerd’s computer screen.)

There’s more review coming to baseball in 2014, and no one has the slightest clue how it’ll work. The league announced a manager-challenge system before backing off that notion. Will the umpires make the calls? Will a central office make the calls? Who knows? Will close plays — think fair or foul, on a smoked grounder, or swipe tags at the plate — be easy to get right? Of course not! Keep wingin’ it, baseball.

Sports Illustrated’s Peter King recently spent a week embedded with an NFL crew, and published an exhaustive account online. Gene Steratore, one of the league’s top referees, tells King: “Sometimes it’s like you’re watching the Zapruder film and trying to figure out what exactly happened.” Talk about another 50-year-old film artifact, promising certainty yet delivering anything but.