Upon further review, instant replay in sports expands

Midway through the fourth quarter of Wednesday night’s preseason game between the Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors, officials assessed a flagrant foul to Warriors forward Marreese Speights for apparently tripping the Kings’ Patrick Patterson. But they wanted to be sure.

They reviewed the play on a courtside monitor. They huddled and talked. Players idled, and a reported crowd of 12,260 waited. After a brief interlude, the officials delivered the verdict: The call stood. Nothing changed. Patterson headed to the free-throw line.

For a seemingly inconsequential episode, it illustrated how the role of replay in sports has changed since it was introduced into the NBA for the 2002-03 season as a way to clear up disputed calls. Then, it could be used only to review baskets made and fouls called with no time remaining in a period. The NBA system has since expanded to cover a multitude of minutiae, from flagrant fouls and clock malfunctions to whether a shooter’s toe was on or just behind the three-point line.

The proliferation of replay review, of course, is not limited to the NBA, and neither are the common reservations – that it robs sports of a human element, strips away traditions, prolongs games that some feel already drag on too long. And yet the evolution continues.

The NBA season begins this week, the Kings tip off their season Wednesday, and referees will have more plays to review. This season, the NBA has added aspects to the common block-or-charge call and fouls away from the ball to the officials’ review arsenal. Meanwhile, the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals wage perhaps the last World Series in which disputed calls won’t be settled with the use of replay technology. Under a proposal for 2014, Major League Baseball could adopt a system in which managers may challenge an on-field call (as in the NFL) and send it to an off-site hub for review (a la hockey’s NHL).

“With modern technology, I think in all sports you want to use everything you have to make the right decision,” Kings head coach Michael Malone said at the team’s practice Thursday. “These games, obviously they’re entertaining for the fans, but they’re hard-fought, and you want to make sure the referees get it right.

“The fact they can go to the table, review it and look at, ‘OK, do we have the call correct, what happened,’ so now the outcome of the game is not being influenced by a call that could have been corrected – I’m all for that.”

That, sports-media experts say, is the prevailing view among proponents of expanded replay. Advancements in video technology allow officials to see game action in unprecedented detail when reviewing calls previously left to the human eye. In that way, said Dennis Deninger, a veteran TV production executive who now teaches sports communication classes at Syracuse University, their pursuit of the right call can be likened to a production crew’s quest for the perfect shot.

“The more important the event, the larger the audience, you want to make sure you’ve got cameras in every position so that anything happening right on a line, that could be the point upon which a game is decided, you want to be able to have the defining look,” Deninger said. “The same thing goes now for the use of replay by officials – they’re looking for the same thing.

“There is so much at stake in the revenue, so much that goes into each of these decisions, that getting them right is far more important, it seems, than it ever has been. Thus the focus on, well, we’ve got these tools, let’s use them to make sure we can get it right.”

That’s especially the case when the average fan sitting at home – or in a stadium seat looking up at the video scoreboard – is often treated within seconds to several replays from different angles and at different speeds, so the fan sometimes knows of a blown call as soon as, or before, the officials.

In fact, said Glenn Cummins, director of the Center for Communication Research at Texas Tech, the volume and quality of replay has so saturated TV over the past decade that fans now expect that defining look. Multiple perspectives from added cameras, clarity of high-definition and the high frame rate that allows for super-slow replays can make the thin margin between a catch and an incompletion more discernible than ever. And as technology has evolved, Cummins said, leagues have had to react.

“I think (expanded replay review is) a strategic decision by the league itself recognizing this is what contemporary sports fans are used to, this is what they’ve grown up with, and we’d be foolish not to integrate that into the game,” Cummins said. “It’s a part of taking sports into the 21st century, recognizing organized sports don’t exist in a vacuum.”

It certainly seems to be the case in baseball, arguably the slowest of the major American sports to integrate replay. The current system is limited to boundary calls on home runs, but proposed changes for next season would greatly expand the variety of calls that could be reviewed and allow managers to challenge calls they believe are wrong.

The review – and ruling – would then be conducted by a crew in New York that would relay its decision to the umpires on the field. The proposal is expected to be voted on by owners next month, and would still be subject to approval by the players’ union and umpires. Still, said ESPN baseball analyst Jim Bowden, it reflects acceptance of changing times by a sport that cherishes its history and tradition.

“My own personal thing is it’s great for the game,” Bowden said. “And the main reason for that is that the children of America with their iPads and iPhones and satellite radio, all the replays they see and the camera angles they have access to, they don’t understand why a blown call can’t be overturned when in other sports it is. The younger generation just didn’t understand why baseball was so archaic and not utilizing this.”

Bowden said that, in his experience, attitudes to replay are mixed. “(Seventy percent) are for it, but there’s always going to be a group of people who like the human element,” he said. Other concerns include delays to the game – the current system involves umpires leaving the field to conduct their video review – though Bowden said he believes the proposed changes might actually eliminate unnecessary delays, albeit in a way that might make the Earl Weavers and Lou Piniellas of the world cringe.

“The manager won’t argue (a disputed call),” Bowden said. “He’ll just throw his flag.”

Such a challenge system is “something that’s just starting to be talked about” in the NBA, said Rod Thorn, the league’s president of basketball operations, but not imminent. A more tangible possibility is the kind of off-site review of plays being considered by MLB and used in the NHL, which would ostensibly speed up the review process.

“If we want to do it, we would have the ability to do something like that probably within a year’s time,” Thorn said in a phone interview. “So that’s one thing that could really change, and we’ll watch very closely what happens with baseball.”

Other advancements are largely hypothetical and – in some cases – futuristic-sounding. Andrew Billings, director of the University of Alabama Program in Sports Communication, said he believes replay may be a “bridge” to embracing more advanced technology, such as a sensor in footballs to mark its down location or an automated strike zone. He pointed to professional tennis – which resolves player challenges with ball-tracking technology that displays a prompt in-or-out ruling to players, officials and fans simultaneously – as a sport that has solved the biggest drawback to technology.

“Anything that makes things more accurate makes it better,” Billings said. “It’s the time that it takes to use that technology that’s the problem.”

Interestingly, one of the few changes to the NBA’s replay rules for the 2013-14 season is not technological but conceptual. Officials last season were allowed to review block and charge calls to determine whether the involved defender was in the restricted area around the basket. This season, officials may reverse a charge call if they feel upon review that the defender was set when he drew contact – effectively allowing for a reassessment of what amounts to a judgment call.

“That’s never happened before,” said the NBA’s Thorn. “Now you’re talking about changing something that would be akin to balls and strikes in baseball.”

Thorn said that as the NBA explores more additions to replay, it must strike a balance with maintaining the rhythm of its games. The free-flowing nature of basketball usually makes for fewer built-in pauses than baseball or football – and thus more noticeable interruptions. But the times cannot be ignored.

“The reality is that every day, something new electronically is coming down the pike, and you’re going to be able to definitely see exactly what’s going on more and more,” Thorn said. “So I think the push is going to be, more and more, get the play right. And we’ll see where it goes.”