The baseball playoffs are underway and I’m sure you’re thrilled with the fact the ballparks involved have been wired to permit TV “instant” replay to determine whether home run-like blows are fair or foul, in or out.
I put the word “instant” in quotes because they belong there. Baseball first implemented TV replays on questionable home runs late last month. In each of the few times the system was used, play was halted for about five minutes while the umpires went wherever they did to examine the tapes and reach their decision. While they were out, the paying customers in the stands and the folks at home in televisionland amused themselves as best they could.
But—hey!—the calls came out right, didn’t they? Maybe. As anyone who has seen the movie “Rashomon” knows, reality can be complex, viewpoint is important and seeing isn’t necessarily believing. Often, a replay adds another level of controversy to one that already exists.
Worse, subjecting playing-field doings to microscopic video analysis gives them vastly more importance than they deserve. They’re games, for heaven’s sake, and no matter what the sports crazies think the fate of the republic doesn’t hang on their outcome. Players and coaches make mistakes—plenty of them. Officials can be excused an occasional miscue.
That was why Major League Baseball’s surrender to the replay clamorers particularly pained me. Commish Selig previously had resisted nobly, holding with his sainted predecessors that baseball was played by humans and should be judged by them. No more needed to have been said. But now that the camel has its nose in the tent, can its whole bulky, smelly body be far behind?
The National Basketball Association adopted video replay (on shots or fouls at or near the buzzers) in 2002, but the blame for the mania rests squarely with the National Football League, which adopted it earlier and uses it far more often. This was only to be expected from our most corporate and grandiose sporting entity. It forever gained the latter distinction some years ago when it sponsored a national student essay contest on its place in American history. The subject could have been covered in a single word: none.
The NFL’s bureaucratizing bent is best seen in its handling of pre-game player-injury reports. In the old days teams issued these haphazardly, creating an underground market for the real scoop among the gamblers whose attentions add much to the sport’s popularity. The league responded by requiring public disclosure, but has tinkered with the process so much that the categories have become blurry and the lists bewilderingly long. And guess what? The underground market lives again.
The league already litters its fields of play with seven game officials, all with yellow penalty handkerchiefs at the ready. This contrasts with soccer, where a single referee oversees as many players on a larger greensward. It’s a wonder that the football zebras don’t get tangled up in plays more than they do. Being an NFL umpire (the guy who usually positions himself behind the defensive line) is akin to smoke jumping in terms of dangerousness.
It’s a natural law that if you give someone a job he’ll do it whether or not it needs doing, so many NFL contests are veritable penalty fests. The game encourages players to commit acts against the opposition that would qualify as felonies in the square world, and it’s impossible to loose 22 amped up and overmuscled young men on such missions without some rule being broken. The question then becomes not who is breaking the rules but which violations deserve censure. Knowing that the camera always is watching, and judging, can only prompt officials to be overzealous.
So the hankies flutter down like confetti at a political convention, the worst being the red ones coaches use to seek justice when they feel they’ve been wronged. Off goes the ref to daven under the cover of the replay machine while the TV commentators dissect the play in question and argue about what they see, or don’t see, or think they see.
Throughout the land toilets flush and Sunday newspaper crossword puzzles are revisited.
This is not what Pete Rozelle intended when he invented the game.