Video replay is ruining professional sports

High-definition, slow-motion video reviews aren’t providing sports infallibility. It’s time for a new standard.
Referee Garrett Rank #48, working his first NHL game, awaits a video replay ruling during the game between the Buffalo Sabres and the Minnesota Wild on January 15, 2015 at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, New York. (Bill Wippert/NHLI/Getty Images)
Referee Garrett Rank #48, working his first NHL game, awaits a video replay ruling during the game between the Buffalo Sabres and the Minnesota Wild on January 15, 2015 at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, New York. (Bill Wippert/NHLI/Getty Images)
Referee Garrett Rank #48, working his first NHL game, awaits a video replay ruling during the game between the Buffalo Sabres and the Minnesota Wild on January 15, 2015 at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, New York. (Bill Wippert/NHLI/Getty Images)

Say what you will about whether golf is a real sport or not—you might consider it a long walk spent hitting things with sticks, or the pinnacle of individual athleticism and mental toughness. But golf has just established itself as the leader of the entire sporting world. How? By defending spectators’ right to be entertained by events on the playing field, and putting that great scourge of modern sports—video replay—in its proper place. In the wake of the NHL’s latest replay controversy, with the Edmonton Oilers claiming they were robbed of a playoff victory as the result of a failure of video evidence, the rest of the professional sports league universe should be following golf’s lead.

In April, professional golfer Lexi Thompson was assessed a four-stroke penalty for a ball placement infraction. After putting down a coin to mark the spot of her ball, Thompson subsequently replaced her ball about an inch or so away from its original location. This error, which appeared entirely inadvertent, went unnoticed by everyone on the course—because it couldn’t be seen by the unaided eye. It was a self-appointed referee, a fan watching at home on television with the ability to slow the footage down in high definition, who spotted the error and alerted LPGA officials. While leading at the time of her mistake, Thompson ended regulation play tied for first thanks to the ensuing penalty, and eventually lost in a playoff round.

Last week, golf’s ruling bodies announced new rules to ensure no other golfer would suffer Thompson’s fate again. In particular, video replay evidence is now subject to a “naked eye” standard: “The use of video technology can make it possible to identify things that could not reasonably be seen with the naked eye,” golf’s rule book now advises, giving as an example a few grains of sand that might be visible during the backswing of a bunker shot in a high-definition, slow-motion replay. Such forensic evidence will no longer be admissible.

Technology, the new rule states, “should not be used to hold players to a higher standard than human beings can reasonably be expected to meet.” Effective immediately, professional golfers cannot be punished for infractions that are only apparent in some distant control room or basement. Just because video replay shows us something doesn’t mean we need to act on it.

This is a very good thing.

Constant evolution in video replay suggests it is both feasible and desirable to produce a sporting event free of officiating controversies. Simply by adding ever-increasing amounts of technology—more cameras, super slow motion, state-of-the-art command centres, mandatory video review—it will eventually be possible to achieve the flawless game.

But every professional sport would do well to adopt its own “naked eye” standard for all replay rulings. If it is impossible to spot an infraction at normal speed while watching it live, it shouldn’t matter.

Yes, this would mean that some on-the-field calls will inevitably be proven wrong after the fact. Choosing to ignore video evidence such as this—conclusive and incontrovertible proof, perhaps—means refs and umps will continue screwing up, just as they have for centuries. Games will be lost as a result. Boo hoo.

The most obvious cost of our quest for perfection is in lost time and pleasure. Every time a football coach tosses his red flag or an NHL coach calls a challenge, play stops while the video evidence is reviewed. All angles must be checked. Is it clear enough to overturn the call? Let’s watch it one more time…

Meanwhile, your endorphins are held hostage by technology. The NHL replay turns crowd participation into an absurd multi-stage, energy-sapping process. Cheer when the puck enters the net. Wait patiently while the Situation Room decides. Then cheer again (or complain) depending on the final outcome. Video reviews are black holes into which the all the excitement and spontaneity of live sports is sucked.

And none of this bother actually delivers on the promise of an end to officiating controversies. Consider the outrage felt by Edmonton over the last-minute tying goal by the Anaheim Ducks over their Oilers on Friday. While slow-mo replays showed convincing proof the Ducks’ Ryan Kesler had grabbed Oiler goalie Cam Talbot’s pad in the crease, the resulting goal was allowed to stand. If there’s no such thing as a perfectly officiated game—if fans are going to complain about the refs regardless of technology applied—then why bother?

Some leagues are trying to limit the distraction. Major League Baseball this year instituted a two-minute “guideline” on video reviews. If an on-field call can’t be overturned in 120 seconds, umpires are supposed to let the play stand. It’s a start, but hardly a coherent trend. Where Major League Soccer once restricted video evidence to whether the ball entered the net or not, it’s now allowing it to influence on-field calls as well.

The thrill of spectator sports like football or hockey lie in their blur of speed and violence. Slow the action to below the capacity of normal human comprehension, and you end up focusing on minutiae. Last year, the Toronto Blue Jays successfully challenged a stolen base because video replay showed that as Yonder Alonso of the Oakland A’s slid into second base his knee lifted off the bag for a split second while a tag was applied. To the naked eye, such a thing is impossible to discern. It is an infraction that only exists in the presence of technology. Hi-def video replay swamps us with irrelevant micro-physics moments such as these.

And while technology allows us to extrude shots of a wide receiver’s foot so we can watch as it delicately crosses the painted side line—frame by frame with a degree of exactness and clarity that was found wanting in the Zapruder footage—this is false precision. You might prove the catch was good, but another camera focused elsewhere could just as easily show a lineman tugging ever-so-slightly on another’s jersey, or a foot suggesting intent to trip a defensive back. And then what? The closer we look and the more cameras we add, the more penalties we’ll find.

Rather than going further down the rabbit hole of technology, we ought to limit video replay to the biggest moments in sport. Did the puck go in the net? Did the ball travel around the foul pole? In these simple situations, replay can usefully offer a fresh set of eyes trained at the exact spot necessary. But there’s no need for resolution that exceeds golf’s standard of the naked eye.

Sport is supposed to provide an emotional escape from everyday life. It’s not the pursuit of particle physics by other means. If the naked eye is good enough to enjoy a game live, it ought to be good enough to render judgment on how that game is played.