Instant replay's widening clout over referees

Veteran and highly regarded football official Sam Maphis sits in a restaurant, staring out at the falling snow, and grousing about the ground swell this week in favor of the return of the use of instant replay in NFL games.

"The game is human, the players are human, errors are human, and we're human," says Mr. Maphis, who until recently officiated in the former Big 8 conference for 20 years. So is it OK to have occasional human errors? "Absolutely."

But Maphis's voice seemingly is a whine in the wilderness. In sport, where errors are part of the mosaic, with everybody contributing a fair share, the focus is on achieving zero tolerance for mistakes by officials.

"It's a shame," grumps Maphis. "It takes the responsibility away from and the guts out of officials. It makes him less of a man out there."

The NFL's commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, thinks otherwise. He not only believes the need is desperate to have instant replay again, but that it's acute. The NFL used instant replay for six years, between 1986 and 1991. There were 376 reversals of officiating decisions after the "further review" offered by television replay.

Mr. Tagliabue will reportedly poll the 30 team owners next week to see if they want to return to it for this year's playoffs. A "yes" vote will need to be approved by at least 23 owners. And it seems likely the yeas will get it.

That's because there has been an epidemic of seemingly bad calls and obviously bad calls this year. Calls for instant replay heightened after officials awarded Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde a touchdown when he was clearly short of it - thus gaining his team an ill-gotten win over Seattle - and allowing New England to fraudulently claim a last-second victory over Buffalo.

There was great consternation when officials failed to get a coin toss correct in the Detroit-Pittsburgh Thanksgiving Day game, improperly allowing Detroit to get first possession in the overtime. The Lions promptly booted the winning field goal.

It was Alexander Pope who admonished, "To err is human, to forgive divine." The NFL approach is no err in the first place. These days, either thanks or no thanks to television, every mistake by an official is seen and discussed, ad nauseam. In turn, the economic ramifications are huge. That one horrific call against Buffalo may keep the Bills out of the playoffs and cost the team millions of dollars.

So there is the tug of war between technology and humans. Indeed, which should rule? So there is the tug of war between purity and accuracy. Indeed, which should rule?

Truth is that as long as the technology is available to help get calls correct, then it makes sense to most to use it. "There is one objective - get the calls right," says Jets coach Bill Parcells. Contrary to popular opinion, the use of technology doesn't slow the game, but nor is it omnipotent.

Generally, only purists like Maphis are holding on firmly to days past. But no one can offer a truly sound rationale not to use instant replay, that nifty process introduced by then ABC sports exec Roone Arledge in the late 1970s, simply to increase the enjoyment of television viewers.

THE only defense of the status quo - and it's not a bad one - is that mistakes are part of sports, just like great performances. Maphis admits that on plays in the line, for example, "You can't see the ball half the time because there are too many big bodies. And if you just think you have a call, you have nothing." Sometimes, instant replay can help. Sometimes, it can't.

ESPN reports that in 165 NFL games this year, 42 calls would have been reversed under instant replay. In fact, technology of all stripes is embraced in numerous sports. Tennis works continuously on machines that will effectively call lines, as well as net cords. Hockey is served well by instant replay. Track and field is a slave to it, most races now being governed electronically or by computer from start to finish and most field events - like the javelin - being judged technologically.

Horse and dog racing long have had cameras to decide close finishes. Auto racing loves instant replay. And many more. Basketball doesn't use instant replay, though it would help in determining whether three-pointers are legit. Baseball doesn't either.

A decade ago, then commissioner Peter Ueberroth said he didn't want to eliminate the "human element," which is codespeak for "screwing up."

The unrepentant Maphis says of officials, "They're normally right most of the time." But it seems likely that this, upon further review, will be deemed not good enough.

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