COLUMN: Instant replay takes the human element out of officiating sports

Wednesday, July 28, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

As one who has spent much of his life engaged in playing, coaching, studying, officiating and viewing virtually all competitive sports, it is reasonable to assume that I have not only an interest in athletics but also a smattering of knowledge. Several who read this column may remember that while in high school, I organized, managed and played for my own summer baseball team.

In addition to a long-standing and intimate baseball experience, I played basketball, softball, corkball, tennis, wrestled and threw the shot and discus. In none of these did I win any laurels,but I participated. During my four years at the University of Missouri (1953 to 1957), I became reasonably adept at refereeing basketball for Anton J. Stankowski, the no-nonsense and disciplined director of intramural athletics, and coached high school and junior college wrestling at Kemper Military Academy in Boonville.

In later years, I coached youth football , baseball and basketball at Marine Military Academy (where I was also the athletic director) and umpired or refereed virtually every sport but soccer. I don't offer these experiences as a self-gratification, I do so merely to establish a frame of reference for the opinion that follows.

By now, it should be abundantly clear in our spectator sports that any time an umpire or referee appears to have blown a call, particularly when it influences the contest's outcome, there ensues a continuous din to add that particular competitive event to those already governed by electronic replay. The 2009 World Series saw the home run subjected to this review, while this season alone featured controversial officials' judgment calls in World Cup soccer play as well as Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga's losing a perfect game to an umpire's blown call at first base.

Predictably, there occurred a cacophony of pleas and demands for instant replay — even the president chimed in, saying the blown baseball call dramatized the need for electronic review. By and large, the most intensive hue and cry emanated from sportswriters and sportscasters whose bread and butter are the controversial, debate-sparking issues that generate argumentative discussion, freeing them from the mundane regurgitation of statistics and second-guessing of managers and coaches.

However, I am not only unalterably opposed to tacking on yet another phalanx of cameras to review officials' calls, I am also in favor of scrapping most of the instant replays which have insidiously permeated much of our sports. I offer two fundamental rationales in support of my opinion, which I suspect will resonate with a majority of those who enjoy athletic competition.

First, we can all agree that football, basketball, baseball, soccer, hockey, et al are played by human beings and, as such, are subject to the common human frailties, misplays, judgmental errors, mental lapses and lack of skills we have all grown to accept. Why then must we hold the umpire and referee to a higher standard by second guessing his or her honorably arrived at decision, made in the heat of the moment?

During the course of any contest, the players will make far more errors, mistakes and bonehead plays than will the officials — they are not afforded the opportunity for a "mulligan" — so why show up the umpire/referee? One of my earliest memories of baseball is the late, great umpire Bill Klem, who said "I never missed or made a wrong call — in my heart." If we desire "zero defects" perfection in athletic contests, they should be played and judged by computers--otherwise the integrity and the human failings of the arbiters should be respected.

The second and perhaps most irritating heartburn I have toward instant replay is that it is not instant. Instead it is a time consuming, utterly boring period of inaction and loss of momentum for the contestants. I ask you, is there anything more boring, other than watching paint dry or an Al Gore oratory, than waiting while football referees view a disputed play from every conceivable angle and confirm the original call 90 percent of the time?

Do we really wish to see this annoyance added to other sports? As an example, the leading criticism of baseball as a spectator's sport is the length of the games as the prolific employment of relief pitchers, the constant adjustment of batting gloves, the breakage of bats and increased grandstanding by players and managers has added upwards of an hour to a game that once took but a couple of hours to complete. Do we really need to tack on instant replay (instantly consuming 5 to 10 minutes) to that which is already a factor in diminished attendance?

Admittedly, many out there are looking for perfection, a peg to fit every hole; nevertheless, we are better served with playing the games as they were meant to be and the officials "calling them as they see them" while getting booed for perceived missed calls. After all, are they not games, and are not games meant to be fun?

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at

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Bob Brandon July 28, 2010 | 5:27 a.m.

Yep, nothing like bad officiating to add "fun" to a game. Instant replay reduces the error rate in professional sports; in fact, having it available reduces errors up front by reminding officials that their performance is supervised. We would not tolerate gratuitous error in our ordinary lives if it could be remedied; why tolerate it elsewhere?

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Ellis Smith July 28, 2010 | 6:20 a.m.

Isn't instant replay a bit like an electronic version of a "do over"? "Do overs" may be justified in athletic contests, but is the "do over" concept justified in all things? Younger readers may be surprised to learn that this "do over" philosophy is a rather recent concept: before, you were supposed to get it right the first time. If you didn't, someone (possibly including you) had to suffer the consequences.

It would certainly be nice if we were afforded "do overs" for automobile accidents, plane crashes, etc. Modern day Japanese might like to have a "do over" over having attacked Pearl Harbor.

"Get it right the first time." Being human, we won't always succeed in doing that, but that should be the goal.

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Brendon Steenbergen July 28, 2010 | 9:13 a.m.

Mr. Miller's argument is faulty on a couple of fronts. First while games are played and officiated by mistake-prone humans, only the mistakes of players should define the outcome of a competition. A mistake by an official mars the purity of this competition. Players are penalized for their mistakes by losing, officials mistakes only penalize the team who was wronged.

Secondly, I have worked inside a Big 12 Replay Booth for over five years and can tell Mr. Miller that the vast majority of replay decisions are made in under one minute, often under 30 seconds. Though he devotes half of this article to his credentials, I can tell him first hand that while some decisions take longer, it is because they are often game defining decisions and the call is very close. Most decisions are cut and dry and many times spectators are unaware that a review has occurred because a game stoppage isn't even necessary.

Fans want accuracy from their officials, so that they can let player, coach, and team decisions and mistakes define outcomes. They don't get a free pass, neither should officials.

(Report Comment)
Andrew Hansen July 29, 2010 | 9:20 a.m.

Next up: J. Karl Miller defends the 5th Down incident; claims it added a 'human element' to the game. {sarcasm}
@Brendon: Great comment.

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Don Milsop July 29, 2010 | 8:39 p.m.

My only comment is that instant replay likely removes much of the possibility of corruption of game officials who have been caught on more than one occasion. I'm sure the odds makers appreciate that, as does the gambling public (including the office pool folks).

(Report Comment)
Jeff Kopp August 6, 2010 | 9:20 a.m.

Where did you play corkball? I play corkball in St. Louis. Lots of us do!


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