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Steve Springer

Loss of Purity a Small Price for Right Call

February 21, 1988|Steve Springer

TV or not TV. That is once again the question.

When technology first produced the instant replay, it was considered the greatest boon for couch potatoes since the invention of the household popcorn popper.

Now you could not only watch your favorite fighter knock out his opponent, but you could see it again and again. From seven different angles. There were suddenly cameras everywhere but in the fighter's glove. Great catches, great runs and great dunks could be seen ad nauseum. Not to mention all the controversial plays.

Then the problems began. The camera revealed that not all the close calls were going the right way. Not often but on occasion, officials and referees, being human, were missing fumbles, fouls and tags.

Now, everybody in America with a television set had a better view of the play than the guy paid to rule on it.

So what did organized sports do? The only brave thing, of course. Instant replays were banned from the large screens on display at many athletic venues.

Let's not aggravate the situation by letting the fans who paid their way into these events know what was going on, the thinking went. That might incite a riot. Let's keep them in the dark. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. It was bad enough that the fans at home were going to learn the truth.

It never seemed to occur to these people to actually use this device to correct these occasional, inadvertent errors. It was better that championships should be decided on bum calls than to use evidence staring referees in the face to change bad decisions.

An umpire's ruling at first base, shown to be clearly inaccurate on instant replay, probably cost the St. Louis Cardinals the World Series in 1985.

Imagine if our courts worked that way. Sure, I know we've got all this evidence that indisputably shows the defendant is innocent. But make sure the jury doesn't see it. Let them decide guilt or innocence purely on gut feeling.

Now an athletic contest can certainly not be equated with a legal proceeding that could result in a prison or death sentence. But it can seem like life or death to athletes who have put in months or years to achieve a goal that can determine the course of their careers. It also can seem like life or death to millions of fans. So with so much riding on it, why not assure the fairest outcome? Why not use anything and everything available to make sure the judgment calls of officials are correct?

The most stupid argument against the use of instant replay, absolutely the most stupid, goes like this: Officials are human. Athletes are humans. They all make mistakes. Don't depersonalize sports by letting machines run it. Better to be inaccurate than insensitive.

Right on. And while we're at it, let's get rid of those new-fangled electronic scoreboards and go back to having the score posted manually by a guy inside the structure putting up large cards for all to see. And let's get rid of those strange 20th-century devices called cameras and go back to transmitting results of the game by a ticker tape. And let's stop using jetliners to transport athletes all over the place. What was wrong with the train?

Domed stadiums? Who needs them. Let's play in the mud and snow. And what's with all these modern surgical techniques that allow a man with a knee injury to be back in action in weeks? Athletes are human. And humans get hurt. Let's not meddle by healing them.

The National Football League finally took a bold new step into reality several seasons ago by employing replay cameras to overrule inaccurate calls.

It has worked well, but still the critics are not satisfied. The new knock on instant replay is that it takes too long, that games are delayed as much as three to five minutes on occasion while replays of close calls are studied.

Never mind that games are delayed far, far longer for seemingly interminable commercial breaks and halftime shows. That's necessary to pay the freight. But stop a game for two minutes to get the outcome right and beware.

Now the instant replay controversy has come down to the high school level. A basketball game between Kennedy and Fairfax was decided on a shot in the closing seconds. Kennedy guard Cord Bailey, his team trailing, 32-29, with seven seconds to play, made a shot from the area of the three-point line. At first, it was ruled a game-tying three-point shot.

After the game had ended, officials, unsure of the call, viewed a videotape replay of the shot, courtesy of a local cable company telecasting the game. They announced that an error had been made, that Bailey was not in three-point country when he put the ball in the air. The basket was changed to a two-point shot and Kennedy lost, 32-31.

The National High School Federation prohibits use of replays. Kennedy officials have protested, but in the City Section there is no instrument for such a protest. City Commissioner Hal Harkness has apologized to Kennedy.

Kennedy coach Yutaka Shimizu is understandably upset.

"I think the referees have to be talked to," he said. "Otherwise, this is going to happen to some other coach in the same situation."

What will happen, getting three points for a two-point shot?

Shimizu's argument--that if his team had known it was behind in the closing seconds, it would have pressed or fouled or in some other way attempted to get the ball back--is a reasonable claim.

So is his contention that a rule was violated by referring to the replay.

But the bottom line is, Kennedy legally scored 31 points and that's what the team got. Why should it be any different? Why should clear evidence be ignored, whether it be in a high school game or at the big-league level?

There is a precedent for the Kennedy case. A three-point shot in a UNLV game earlier this year was disallowed after viewing a replay.

Those doomsday predictions are coming true after all. The darn machines are taking all the fun out of it.

Not to mention the bad calls.

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