Major league baseball could easily set up a video recording system that calls balls and strikes. You could track the ball, relative to the plate, from front to back, from left to right, and from top to bottom. You would know exactly where the ball entered and exited the rectangular strike zone for strikes, or how far outside the strike zone the ball passed for balls. The strike zone would not shrink or expand, depending on the umpire’s mood that night, or on the batter’s physical stature. You would have consistency in place of human judgment – and a cure for judgment’s constant companion, human error.
Why does major league baseball not install such a system, or even test one? I expect because it would change the product. When people buy a ticket to a baseball game, they pay to watch the home plate umpire call strikes and balls as part of the package. If the umpire shakes his pinky finger at the batter when he calls a third strike on a 3-2 pitch, fans want to know what kind of pantywaist performance they’ve seen. What happened, they ask, to the sidelong elbow pump: “You’re outta there!!” The home plate umpire is one of the performers on the field. All umpires are.
The same goes for referees on the field in a football game. The ball enters the red zone with less than a minute in the half. Spectators watch keenly to see if the offense can score, or if the defense can hold. If the ball crosses the goal line, everyone looks to the referee to see if both arms go up over his head, or if he swings his arms low to signal no good. The referee calls the play as he sees it, and he is part of the performance.
Reversing a referee’s call from backstage is like informing the audience at the Oscars, “Well look here, the moment you all waited for was a big mistake. What you saw didn’t really happen. We have a new winner to announce!” The difference is that the NFL has made this embarrassing baloney part of its routine! They don’t seem to care about the performance on the field. They’re willing to have games decided by people in a screening room in New York City, whose only connection to the game is a video feed. Now fans won’t even care whether the referee calls a goal or signals no score, because the referee’s call doesn’t matter. People will just wait for word from New York.
Even more insidious, the referees on the field won’t care either. Why should they? Their ruling can be overturned for no reason anyone can see. Little by little, they’ll develop an attitude that does not value what happens on the field, and that discounts what they contribute to the game. They’ll just try to guess what the word from New York will be.
Professional pride has a lot of dimensions. One of its principles is that if you tell professionals implicitly that their judgment does not matter, they have little reason to apply their skills to reach good judgments. They begin to ask, why should I try? If they believe their own judgment on the field does not matter for touchdowns – because it doesn’t – they may reasonably ask, why not call every important play based on the video feed?
Yes, but don’t we all want accurate calls? Don’t we want a game decided according to the rules? Instant replay and video review by experts who know the rules ensures the game’s outcome is fair and square, unaffected by mistakes, fast judgments on the field, and poor angles of vision. Yet the fans can see the instant replays, too. They know the rules of the game, and they can see what happened. If their reaction is, ‘That was a touchdown,’ or, ‘That was a judgment call, and it should stand up,’ you have fans who can’t believe the game they’re watching is being decided by a remote crew who isn’t even involved in rhythm of the game.
So I don’t want to argue that the NFL never reviews a play. That’s why it has challenges – and a method for limiting them. Critically, though, referees on the field should review instant replays for challenges. Pushing the review to NFL video central in a distant location is a serious mistake. The gut reaction to that idea is the one we’ve seen: ‘The suits in New York are deciding the game.’ The only suits to decide the game should wear jerseys with wide black and white stripes.