It’s November 28, 2019. The Lakers are playing the Pelicans. Brandon Ingram goes up for a jumper and the referee whistles Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for a foul on the shot attempt. The only problem was, Caldwell-Pope never touched him. The call was so egregious that Lakers head coach Frank Vogel used a challenge, yet, after reviewing the play, the referees somehow upheld their decision despite all visual evidence pointing to the contrary.
Even LeBron James, whose incessant whining inspired the internet to create a crying meme, saw no point in arguing. After all, when you’re witness to something this mind-numbingly dumb, why bother? Instead, he walked over to announcers Stan Van Gundy and Marc Jackson to address them directly, and the mics were able to capture their interaction (see below).
Far be it for me to agree with LeBron about, well, anything, but in this case, he nailed it. In fact, with only two sentences, he summed up exactly what’s wrong with instant replay across almost all professional sports; the humans overseeing it and the conflict of interest they create. Have you ever witnessed a call that anyone with half a brain and at least one functioning eye knows should be corrected and wasn’t? Well, there’s a reason for that.
In the NBA, the league’s 70 referees take turns rotating from the court to the replay center. At the same time, the NFL, MLB, and various soccer leagues all employ former referees and umpires, respectively, to oversee their reviews. The only outlier? The NHL, but we’ll get to that shortly. Brotherhood amongst officials happens to be one of the worst-kept secrets in pro sports. The ones operating the booth understand the pressures of making split-second decisions and therefore wish to avoid undermining their counterparts whenever possible.
They also don’t want to damage an official’s psyche and risk the individual having to second guess themselves for the remainder of the game. With that said, it’s easy to understand why booth operators would be reluctant to overturn the original call. And, no, this is not just a conspiracy theory, as a deeper dive into the data supports the logic in most cases.
From 2019 to 2020, challenges were used in the regular season 633 times, per NBA data. The league reports that 44% of those calls were overturned, with out-of-bounds (75%) and goaltending/basket interference (68%) being the most successful reviews. This year, the overall number of challenges increased to 648, with a 48% reversal rate. While a 4% upswing is encouraging, it’s clear to see the majority of calls are still being upheld.
With challenges in the NBA being relatively new, it’s OK to give replay officials the benefit of the doubt for the time being. Still, we must monitor the data in the coming years to determine whether or not the system is functioning efficiently. Despite examples such as the one highlighted above, the arrow appears to be pointing up for the NBA, something which can’t be said for baseball.
How to make it better: The NBA’s biggest problem, and something they don’t disclose on their website, is the length of each review. Research shows it takes 88.6 seconds on average to render a decision in regards to player altercations. Under these circumstances, the individuals involved in the brawl should be forced to exit the game until officials render a decision during the next stoppage of play. While we’re at it, let’s make flopping reviewable with a technical foul assessed if the replay shows a player fooled the referee into calling a foul.
Dating back to 2014, when the league first implemented instant replay, the results reveal an alarming tendency. In its inaugural year, a greater amount of calls were overturned than upheld but, with each passing season, the numbers were skewed more and more in favor of the umpires. A singular anomaly is a coincidence; multiple irregularities constitute a trend.
For example, of the 556 challenges used by MLB managers in 2020, the call either stood, meaning replay officials deemed there wasn’t conclusive evidence for a reversal, or was confirmed 310 times (56.5%). With the increased demand for Robo Umps and MLB’s recent experimentation with such technology in the minor leagues, umpires can point to these numbers as a means to argue for their job security. How convenient.
How to make it better: Give each manager two challenges per game, one being explicitly designated for balls and strikes. When reviewing the play, the booth will utilize a “K Zone” as seen on TV, eliminating any grey area in the decision-making process. For check swings, a digital line will be superimposed at the front edge of the plate. If the bat crosses said line, it’s a swing. Simple. While we’re at it, the crew chief should have to announce to the crowd how they arrived at their decision, just like the NFL, NBA, and NHL.
The NFL actually experimented with instant replay from 1986 to 1991, using VHS cassettes to review a recording of the action. So, it’s not surprising to see them have more success (link below) than some of the other professional sports leagues, seeing how they had a head start. However, the first time around, it was voted out by owners who argued it slowed down the game too much and didn’t get enough of the calls correct. Sound familiar?
Unlike MLB, the NFL was much more forthcoming, presenting statistical evidence willingly through their website. It’s easy to understand why the league would have much less to hide with an increase in reversals each year beginning in 2014, including a 7% jump from 2019 to 2020. Much like the NBA, it seems as if football is on the right track, with most calls being overturned last season (56%).
How to make it better: Bill Belichick had it right when he advocated for everything being reviewable. Having state-of-the-art technology but limiting its use is like a doctor possessing an anecdote that can only be administered to a specific group of people. The concern was, if the league allowed this, the pace of play would be slowed down significantly, but the number of challenges would stay the same, rendering this argument moot. If a coach wants to throw the red flag for something seemingly irrelevant, that’s their prerogative.
No replay system has led to more controversy than soccer’s VAR (Virtual Assistant Referee). First implemented in 2016, VAR has created an extreme division amongst fans, some who believe in its long-term benefits and others who openly hate it. A survey taken by YouGov in 2020 revealed 60% of spectators don’t believe the technology is being used properly, while 67% feel instant replay makes the game less enjoyable.
In an interesting twist, 81% support seeing the same video footage available to the booth, while 73% would like to hear conversations between the on-field referee and VAR. It’s abundantly clear that soccer fans don’t trust the replay officials and would soften their stance if everything were above board. In terms of performance, Sky Sports analyzed last year’s numbers in the Premier League and found less than 33% of calls were overturned, an alarmingly low figure.
How to make it better: Soccer is the only sport that doesn’t give coaches the ability to challenge a call. Instead, reviews are triggered by the booth, and a signal is sent to the referee, who stops play to check the monitor while having a discussion with VAR officials. Managers should be given one challenge per match, which they can use on whatever they decide is a game-changing moment or an obvious error. And, as I proposed for the NBA, flopping should be something that coaches can challenge, not only in the box but anywhere on the field, resulting in an automatic yellow card.
Integrated in 1991, the NHL’s Situation Room quickly became the envy of the pro sports world and something other leagues desired to recreate. Last year, there were 155 challenges, 96 of which resulted in the call being overturned (61.9%). This year, the numbers were nearly identical, with the data showing a reversal rate of 61.82%. So why has the NHL’s system become the gold standard? It boils down to one individual known as “Murph” who runs the show.
Mike Murphy, Senior Vice President of hockey operations, played for 13 years as a member of the Blues, Rangers, and Kings. He then moved behind the bench as an assistant coach for five different organizations before becoming the head coach for Toronto and Los Angeles. What’s missing from his resume that makes him the perfect choice to oversee the Situation Room? He was never a referee and therefore has no underlying motivation when rendering a decision. He simply makes sure the call is correct — a straightforward yet eluding concept for other leagues.
How to make it better: Given the NHL’s success with instant replay, it feels like we’re nitpicking here. On the surface, it seems like coaches are limited in regards to what they can challenge. At the present moment, offsides, goalie interference, and missed calls that should have stopped play but resulted in a goal (hand pass, the puck hitting the mesh above the boards, etc.) are the available options. Realistically, this covers just about everything besides challenging a dirty hit.
If a coach thinks the referee assessed too lenient of a penalty or missed it altogether, it should be reviewable and lead to a more severe ruling or ejection if warranted. Excessive force is becoming a trend in the NHL, with goons like Tom Wilson targeting more skillful players and attempting to alter the outcome of a game by injuring the opponent. This change to the replay system would make players think twice before crossing the line and lead to the NHL dishing out more consistent and appropriate suspensions.
For the sake of clarity, it’s important to state that in no way, shape, or form am I demeaning the in-game officials as I profoundly understand how hard their jobs are. Having to manage an array of moving parts while enforcing a multitude of rules, many of which are complex, is a very tall task. And, as athleticism and pace of play continue to increase with each season, it’s not realistic to expect the officials to get every call right. No, my issue isn’t with them; it’s with the individuals in the booth.
In a vacuum, instant replay is a tool designed to provide unadulterated transparency and, with constant technological advancements, has shown the ability to get incrementally better with time. But sadly, instead of it being used to ensure the proper outcome as intended, politics and ego have poisoned the decision-making well, causing it to be a point of contention rather than a saving grace.
Which begs the question; if you’re in charge and this is your league’s truth, why have instant replay at all?