The Problem With Replay Review

With roughly six seconds left, his team down by two, Kevin Durant benefited from a very, very dubious goaltending call.

Portland surely would have wanted a referee review of this play. There had been a review earlier, with 15.9 seconds left, when a blur of gnashing limbs squirted a ball into the crowd. The ball had been called out on Portland. After much waiting, a little elevator muzak…still out on Portland. On the faux goaltend, PDX could get no such painstaking Zapruder film attention. Goaltending is not reviewable–just like fouls. Many on my Twitter feed decried the policy as the Blazers went on to lose in over time.

The call was surely botched. I’m not comfortable with that. The call wasn’t reviewable. I’m quite comfortable with that. Actually, I’d prefer that basketball had no such grinding halts, even per “foot on the line” or “ball out of bounds.” I’d prefer the NBA left rewriting history to sports scribes and fans.

The goaltend was not all that happened on this infamous Durant play. View closely and you’ll see LaMarcus Aldridge make contact with KD’s elbow, in what looks to be a foul. In a world where refs review this kind of play, how would they determine what to call? If goaltending was reviewable, but fouls were not, it is difficult to see how such an approach would result in the “right” decision. Also, how would the NBA review goaltends without allowing for unwhistled goaltends to also be reviewed? And if they were to review noncalls on goaltends, wouldn’t the game have to stop during transition plays?

The bigger problem is replay review itself, a device that has no place in basketball despite its football-stoked popularity. In a free flowing game where teams average nearly 100 possessions, it makes little sense to halt everything on behalf of the retroactive reality police. The league has allowed this for certain dead ball situations, but there is inherent unfairness in combing over a select few plays that the league arbitrarily deems less arbitrary.

Once you let replay review in, a mission creep builds. If we’re reviewing this, then why not that? If we’re reviewing that, then why not this? If you allow that plays should be reviewed, there is no logical quality-control defense for why all plays shouldn’t be reviewed.

All that keeps constant replay at bay is the boredom it ushers. “Getting it right” has a price, because time is money. Reviews are action breaks, permission for a viewer to tune out or channel flip. And while it is fun to imagine Dick Bavetta mistakenly attempting an AOL login as he squints into his monitor, few refs are so amusing.

We act as though referees as the imperfect place holders for better technology. They represent human error, human error that must be rooted out. Few note the main reason referees exist: Expediency. The goal is not for a referee to get every call right. The goal is to keep the game moving, to prevent it from lurching into chaos. Ultimately, bad calls should even out. Ultimately, perfection is second to entertainment. And I say this because the NBA would review every damned play if the order of priorities were reversed.

In this HD era, many have become obsessed with “getting it right,” with reversing the “entertainment” versus “exactitude” priorities. It is difficult to witness an impacting bad call without advocating swift reform. Ironically, the push for more retroactive objectivity may come from an emotional place.

Perfect can be the enemy of good, and trying to root out all imperfection can be a fool’s errand. Reviews generate their own controversies, as we deliberate over what “getting it right” means. The phrase “enough to overturn” has been the source of so much NFL consternation.

If I believe the quest for objective perfection to come from an emotional place, then I must confess my own emotional aversion to replay review. As I’ve argued in the past, the spectre of review devalues the present experience. To know that the play as called can be taken away is to feel less strongly about the play as it happens.

Do you jump as high when your favorite superstar hits a borderline buzzer beater, worrying that this shot might get overturned? I saw a few game winners back in the halcyon 90′s. My joy or dread processed at a synaptic pace, my unadulterated reaction lived in that moment. The primacy of the moment, that moment, is a reason to love sports. These are the times when nothing else matters, when you’re sharing an experience with the similarly immersed. I know Jordan pushed off, that Reggie Miller hit a playoff buzzer beater that didn’t really beat a buzzer. These plays were called incorrectly, but going back in time to “get it right” would have been a far worse call.


Related posts:

  1. Against Instant Replay
  2. Lockout: The TV Problem

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