Instant replay a game changer, not in a good way
I never felt sorrier for an athlete than I did for LeBron James in the moments following Game 1 of the NBA Finals. The man had scored 51 points, carried an inferior team to a superior position, given definition to the word peerless — and yes, peerless includes Michael Jordan.
Yet there James stood, the victim of teammate J. R. Smith, one of the more flawed humans in professional sports, and the victim of the arbitrary implementation of video replay, supposedly perfect science that has had the unintend- ed effect of changing outcomes of entire seasons with imperfect results.
I saw on Facebook on Saturday that my friend Matt Eagan, a sports writer turned lawyer, turned 50. In wishing him happy birthday, I felt compelled to tell him he was right 20
years ago. He argued that trying to find replay perfection in sports played by and officiated by humans was a fool’s errand. He argued the human element is what makes sports great.
I argued that with technology available it would be unfair not to reverse indisputable. What I should have done was recall the scene from “Back to the Future” when Marty McFly looks down at a family photograph and sees that actions that he had just been involved in had the unintended consequences of altering future reality.
Remember Marty seeing his brother’s head missing?
Spontaneity is one of the great beauties of sports. To sit there through minutes of reviews in a highly emotional, climactic situation runs contrary to the joys of the fan experience. Yet it if guaranteed not only the right call but the fairest overall outcome, delays would be worth the wait.
By the selective use of instant replay, however — whether it be through which situations can be reviewed at what times or how many challenges a team may make in a game — final results are altered in a much- lessthan- foolproof way. For the better? Probably more times than not, but certainly nowhere close to perfect.
And that’s the point.
If it’s not foolproof, is playing the lessthan- omniscient replay god artificially and ultimately unfair to the great human element of athletics?
Let’s return to Game 1 of the NBA Finals. After rebounding George Hill’s missed free throw with 4.7 seconds left and the game tied, Smith inexplicably pulled the ball out near midcourt. Coach Ty Lue said Smith thought the Cavs were ahead one. Smith said he knew the game was tied. Truth: J. R. is only 50- 50 to know what day of the week it is.
By losing in overtime, the Cavs, overmatched by the Warriors in nearly every way, are essentially cooked. This was their chance.
Sure, there have been athletes worthier of our pity. People score into their own goals. People get injured in awful ways. Hey, I pity J. R. Smith for being a rock head. Yet when I talk about athletic sorrow for LeBron I mean it in a way that nobody ever deserved a victory in a bigger moment. He produced a game for the ages and he got robbed by his teammate and, yes, by a ridiculously unfair NBA replay system. No amount of rejoicing at LeBron’s expense in this ugly 21st- century social media world can change that.
With 36 seconds left. James stepped in front of a Kevin Durant drive. A charge by Durant was quickly called by crew chief Ken Mauer. Tony Brothers seemed to have an opposing view. The NBA has a rule where in the final two minutes, officials can overturn a charge/ block call, but the review must be triggered by an indecision over whether the defender was in the restricted area.
LeBron was at least 2 feet outside the restricted area. It was bogus and probably gutless to go to the review.
The charge call may be the most difficult in all sports. LeBron had established position and, yes, he also turned his left shoulder. After watching it 15 times, I’ll say it was 50- 50. I am 100 percent sure no such subjective call should be reviewed there. Not when there are 20 such calls every game.
Instead of two points up and the Cavs with the ball to close it out, Durant went to the line for two to tie. The play only meant everything.
A day later, the NBA revealed that postgame analysis showed the Warriors’ Draymond Green committed a lane violation before Hill released the foul shot he missed. Hill should have been rewarded another free throw. The NBA also said Green should have been charged with a foul with 12 seconds left for grabbing LeBron’s arm. That play came before Klay Thompson fouled Hill and would have put LeBron on the line. Great. Unenforceable transparency.
There are hundreds of plays in a basketball game and to get replays involved in subjective calls is stupid and to get involved in arguably the most difficult call in all of sports — charge vs. block — when the championship is on the line is idiotic.
The NBA should change that rule immediately.
Now, let’s look at the December NFL game between the Steelers and Patriots. Jesse James caught a Ben Roethlisberger pass, stretched over the goal line and scored the go- ahead 10- yard touchdown pass with 28 seconds left. The announcers on various outlets all had it as a touchdown. The officials raised their arms.
Only it wasn’t a touchdown. That’s because of the NFL’s stupid rule that stipulated the catch did not “survive the ground.” Obviously, James caught it and made a football play to stretch over the plane of the goal line. And yes, the ball jiggled when it hit the ground.
Video replay showed it. Video replay itself wasn’t the problem. Using it to confirm a stupid rule nobody could determine with the naked eye and would have been a touchdown at any other level and any other era was the problem. Micromanaging in pursuit of perfection? A fool’s errand.
The call made the Patriots the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs and dropped the Steelers to No. 2. The rule became such an incendiary topic that even Commissioner Roger Goodell expressed concern before the Super Bowl. And wouldn’t you know it?
Two vital Eagles touchdowns, which may well have been overturned in the regular season, were ruled good in the breathtaking victory over the Patriots. Al Riveron, NFL senior vice president of officiating, later revealed the plays were ruled “differently” than in the regular season. The NFL competition committee did change the rule in the offseason, but the league had secretly altered the rule on the fly in the playoffs.
Maybe we will find a perfect compromise someday, but let’s not lie. Technology is altering outcomes, sometimes in seasonaltering ways, sometimes not for the better. The fewer replays the better.
Oh, the humanity.
Warriors forward Kevin Durant ( 35) reacts to a call while standing over Cavaliers forward LeBron James during Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday.