In game one of the NBA Finals last Thursday, the only night of the NBA Finals it looks like is going to matter at all, the chatter was about Cavaliers forward J.R. Smith’s boneheadedly forgetting the score of the game and dribbling out the clock rather than trying to score the winning basketball — another teammate drawing yet another mustache on yet another LeBron James masterpiece. After the game, one would think that the Cavaliers would be screaming at Smith, or crying over him, or even rallying around him, the guy who probably dribbled away their title chances. But they didn’t want to talk about Smith at all. They wanted to talk about instant replay.
Specifically, one instant replay: a pivotal call late, when Golden State’s Kevin Durant drove the lane and either committed an offensive foul by charging into LeBron James or had his lane blocked by him — a defensive foul. One official called it a charge. His colleague a few feet away called it a block. And then they looked at each other. One shrugged. Your guess was as good as his.
It’s what happened next that angered the Cavaliers, and I think it’s indicative of a larger issue throughout all sports. Whatever your thoughts on the call itself — I think it’s a block, you might think she’s saying “Yanny” — what was most striking was that the Cavs weren’t complaining about the replay result. They were complaining that replay was used at all. And that’s where we are with instant replay. As is increasingly becoming clear, the age of instant replay isn’t just not working, it’s actually making our sports worse.
One big problem is just how litigious the matter of whether or not to consult replay has become, with each sport having drawn mind-numbingly arcane, labyrinthine distinctions between those things (presumably cut-and-dried questions such as whether someone is out of bounds) that refs can review and those (presumably “judgment calls”) they cannot. Of course, as soon as those categories are drawn up — or, in the case of football, revised seemingly top-to-bottom each offseason — they seem to collapse on one another. In the case of Kevin Durant encountering LeBron James, the two refs, having disagreed on the call, decided to take a look at the monitor to find out what really happened. Unfortunately, by NBA rule, a charge/block call is not supposed to be reviewable unless you’re just trying to see if the defensive player was inside the restricted area under the basket, which LeBron was clearly not. The refs knew this, but they went ahead and called for the replay anyway, because they wanted to get the call right. After they landed on “blocking,” the Cavaliers claimed (incorrectly, as it turned out) that reviewing such a play was unprecedented — that even if the final call was correct, the original one should’ve stood anyway, since the play shouldn’t have been reviewed at all. One Cavaliers fan noted that it was like an illegal search finding contraband; they weren’t even supposed to be looking in the first place.
It is worth remembering that before instant replay was introduced into our sports, we fans demanded it — in fact saw it as a balm that would heal sports, would mend our broken sports-fan hearts. No more Hand of God goals; no Don Denkinger; Robot Umps Now! Instead, all calls would be just, and fair, and the result would shine pure and untarnished as a result. This fantasy was powerful, but it also runs contrary to everything we know about sports fans. Whether you’re watching a game in person or following along at home through social media, yelling about bad calls, real or imagined, is essentially 40 percent of the activity itself, and true investment in sports fandom means believing, with thunderous assurance, that you and your team are of course getting screwed over by the referees and umpires, and that if it weren’t for them, and the crimes they are committing in such a predictable pattern against your team, you’d be winning.
Which is why, it turns out, in sports as in every other field, widespread technological advancements aren’t making us more efficient and united: They’re mucking up the system and making us even angrier at each other. The wonky promise of instant replay was that there was some sort of objective reality on the field of sports, and we could figure out precisely what it was if only we could get close enough to see it. But inconveniently, most calls — at least most calls where there’d be sufficient dispute to merit an instant-replay review — really could go either way. (Especially when, as in the NFL, the rulebook requires officials to not just deconstruct the frames of the Zapruder tape in real time but also to parse the meaning of what amounts to Zen koans like “What is a football move?”) The late National League umpire Harry Wendelstedt once said, “If they did get a machine to replace us, you know what would happen to it? Why, the players would bust it to pieces every time it ruled against them. They’d clobber it with a bat.” Is that not what we do every time a replay call goes against our team? Do players look any happier to you with instant replay than they looked with umpires?
And at least an umpire or referee makes his or her in-game call quickly. Now, the wait can be excruciating. Before we had instant replay, advocates claimed that it didn’t matter how long reviewing a play slowed down the game as long as they got the call right. But it turns out that “getting the call right” with replay is more elusive than we thought, which means we all essentially treat any call, replay or no, as largely fungible: They call could go either way, Yanny, Laurel, it just depends on who’s watching. So now we’re not only getting calls we disagree with … we’re waiting two minutes to get them. All sports are obsessed with pace of play and lengthy game times in a world of second screens and short attention spans. Now we’ve eagerly added an extra ten minutes or so every game where absolutely nothing is happening. How often is it cut and dry, when a replay makes you say, “Oh, whew, that’s an obvious call, there’s no debate whatsoever, glad replay caught that?” Not often, right? We start with uncertainty. We wait five minutes. We get more uncertainty. And we’re more pissed at the end than we were before.
Look at the LeBron play again. In the past, before replay, we would have argued about whether or not it was a block or a charge. Now we have an extra level to get to before we even have that argument: Should they have even reviewed it at all? The Cavaliers were furious not with the call, but that replay was used to try to determine the correct call. That’s what we’ve come to in five years: From “just get the call right” to “they shouldn’t even be able to try to get the call right.” It’s difficult to see this as progress. Replay is causing more issues than it is solving.
Part of this, of course, is about how imperfect the technology is — how few of the important nuances video can truly capture, compared to how much Objective Truth-Seeking we ask it to do. And it is worth pointing out there is some technology, in some sports, that is a bit better than the NBA’s magic 8-ball approach. Tennis has its end-line technology, which only triggers when a player challenges, though that’s about to change; baseball seems to be lurching inexorably toward an automated strike zone, something where you get a BEEP when something is a strike or a HONK when it’s a ball. (I like the idea of a HONK for a bad pitch.) This is an example of technology actually being able to do something that the human eye can’t, something it can do in a millisecond. It would be, in a way replay currently isn’t, an objective truth. Which does raise the question: If technology offered the promise of perfect monitoring of movement, a sort of closed-circuit surveillance state in which every play was registered and adjudicated exactly as it happened, with no potential for misuse or arbitrary judgment or inequitable application, would we embrace it? Or would we just want to clobber it with a bat?