On Page 5 of the new 2016/2017 NCAA rulebook, one finds a summary of the rule changes. What caught my eye was this line:
5.7 Permits video review on three specific situations
Before I outline how this new specific rule is misguided, I find the need to share the reasoning behind my aversion to video replay. In many conversations with others on the topic, I have come to realize that I hold a minority opinion and that most people have become convinced that video replay is a virtuous and noble endeavor.
Many moons ago when I was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed undergrad involved in scientific pursuits at UCSB, I groaned at the prospect of fulfilling my Arts GE requirement. My roommate was in the same unfortunate boat, so I was thrilled when he came to me with an epiphany: “Let’s take Appreciation of Theater and just get stoned before we go see the plays!”. Sold! So we used some of the money we had earmarked for Natty Light and diverted a portion of those funds toward the tickets we were required to purchase to attend 5 plays (we ducked out of the Shakespeare play during intermission as the olde English babble was really harshing our buzz). But what I most remember from that class was a discussion our TA led in section. She started by asserting that theatrical production relied on the interaction between the actors on stage and the audience. Huh? Sure, she explained, the actors react to feedback from the audience like laughter, applause, cheering, gasping, jeering, etc. Maybe, I thought, but it’s all scripted, so how could audience reaction possibly affect what occurred on stage? As though she heard my skeptical thoughts, she took it a step further and asserted that sports were a form of theater. I had heard enough from this liberal arts grad student, and it was nigh that someone step in and put a stop this nonsense! I hit her with “But sports aren’t scripted like theater.” Ha! Got her with that one! But she apparently still had her mind meld working on me, and she ambushed me with, “Well, what about improv theater?”. Hmmm, maybe she was on to something here. She began listing the similarities between theater and sports.
In theater, one prepares for shows with rehearsals. In sports, they are called practices.
In theater, actors wear costumes to distinguish the characters. In sports, one wears uniforms to distinguish the teams and numbers to distinguish the players.
In theater, directors coordinate the proceedings. In sports, they are called coaches.
In improv theater, there are rules (like “yes and…”) and parameters that are enforced or judged by a moderator. In sports, there are referees who wear their own costume (sometimes adorned with a number) and use props like flags and whistles.
In both theater and sports, it’s common to travel to other venues and play before different audiences.
In both theater and sports, players react to the approvals and disapprovals of the crowd.
In both theater and sports, there is the prospect that the players will make a mistake, and this possibility creates mutual tension for player and patron alike which is a necessary component of live theater. At the very least, spectators expect variance from one performance to the next. Otherwise, one might opt to stay home and watch predictable Wizard of Oz on television.
This last comparison between theater players and sports players was the coup de gras that convinced me that sports should be viewed more as a theatrical production than as an imitative of war where my paramount concern was my tribe prevailing, and conversely, that my tribe not be cheated out of its just victory. I extended this newfound insight of accepting mistakes for the sake of drama to all the players involved in the production including those refereeing the contest. After all, if tension is necessary, and if tension is produced by the prospect of folly, and if referees are part of the production, then I must accept when they, too, make an error.
I watch sports for entertainment. I don’t expect to witness perfection. In fact, I expect to see the human condition on display. What I seek is drama. Sure, my preference is to see the presiding officials make the correct judgment, but I also recognize there will always be a gray area on certain calls that simply can not always be adjudicating with 100% objectivity through video. Seeking perfection where perfection can’t be attained represents a fool’s errand. Let’s say in some fantasy world perfection can be achieved, is that really what we desire? If so, then allow me to erase from your memory Maradona’s Hand of God goal. Sorry, never happened. Then we would have a diminished English narrative of a team that gets hard done, wallows in their misfortune (with pints of ale), but always comes back begging for more with their characteristic stiff upper lip and simultaneous optimism/pessimism. Their disallowed goal versus Germany at the 2010 World Cup reinforced England’s officiating woes. Then again, perhaps the soccer gods giveth and the soccer gods taketh away, and they givethed to England in the 1966 World Cup versus Germany. Coincidentally, the English culture also frowns upon diving, so when the Portugese and Italian diving teams arrive at tournaments, their participation provides a cultural tension between societies that support (or at least condone) diving and societies that abhor its practice. It is the referee who must decide if a player dives, and the uncertainty of how the referee will make those split second decisions contributes to the tension and thus the drama, and we need an imperfect referee to ensure that emotionally invested spectators can maximize a riveting experience through unease and incertitude. Again, while I prefer referees make the right call (or certainly avoid making the obvious wrong call), I recognize the future storylines, the grievances, the suffering, and even the societal/cultural impacts that are created when one has the sense of being wronged, especially when that same indignation is felt by an entire tribe. Rivalries are born and nurtured by these feelings of collective indignation. I really dislike Maradona, with a passion, and in part because of that goal and how he arrogantly named it as the Hand of God. However, I have an appreciation for the character he plays, and what is more compelling in a drama than a good villain who got away with something?
One attribute that is unique to humans is hubris. Invading nations in the Middle East with the notion of bringing peace and democracy is hubris. Believing that one can enact prohibition on alcohol is hubristic. And certainly declaring a War on Drugs in light of the failed 1920s Prohibition is the epitome of hubris. So when video replay proponents come along to promise a foolproof system, I have visions of a snake oil salesman. Of course, support for video replay peaks in the aftermath of a perceived travesty where one party feels aggrieved. The howling mob demands “Never again!”, and the authorities quell the rebellion by assuring “something will be done!”. Never again! Except, in the context of a drama, aren’t tragedies the most compelling of stories? I suspect William Shakespeare would agree with me.
But must tragic events that lead to unjust results inevitably lead to calls for change? In modern society, the answer is usually yes. Take the case of Bayern Leverkusen’s Stefan Kiessling and his “ghost goal”:
The video replay zealots (and the lobbying efforts of the video replay manufacturers) made this travesty of a goal their rallying cry, and later that year video replay was put to a vote by the 36 Bundesliga 1. and 2. teams. Thankfully, that vote failed, but the barbarians are still at the gate.
Video replay technology also has the potential of creating an injustice of its own making. For example, let’s review Ukraine’s disallowed goal versus England at the 2012 European Championship (btw, why does it seem England is always involved in these controversies?):
Video replay shows that the ball probably crossed the line, and a review likely would have granted Ukraine the goal. A travesty could have been avoided, right? Wrong! Did you notice that the Ukrainian player who received the ball was clearly offside on the play? He never should have had the opportunity to score in the first place, but a video replay would have meddled in what the soccer gods had resolved on their own. Of course, had replay given Ukraine the goal, there would have been predictable howls to expand video to offside calls to avoid such future, albeit extremely rare, situations. And hello, slippery slope. In this case, instead of righting a wrong, replay would have wronged what was ultimately a right outcome… no goal.
Video replay is now encroaching on professional leagues in the US. The USL has been testing it, and this play on August 12 represented its first official use:
Did the reversal unequivocally lead to the right call? I don’t think so. It looked to me like the defender gives a brief tug on the attacker’s shoulder, lets go, the attacker recovers his balance and then dives into the box. Was it technically a foul by the last man? Yes. Was it also a dive by the attacker after-the-fact? I think so. Was interrupting the match and reversing the decision a worthwhile endeavor? I contend it was not, but the MLS extolled its virtues. Everything is ok in Mayberry.
Now that we’ve determined that video replay is the work of the devil, let’s have a look at the new NCAA rule. While video replay in other sports tends to expand until all the ills are hubristicly resolved (ha!), use of replay in NCAA can only be used if both coaches agree:
And only the referee may initiate a video replay.