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Is video review killing sports?

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(Photo by Otto Greule Jr) Video assistance was supposed to make referees' jobs easier, but the opposite has happened.

Superdome, playoffs. It’s fourth-and-one, the ball is in the Saints’ redzone. Ten seconds remain in the game, and the Falcons are leading by four, eliminating the option for Sean Payton to kick a field goal.

Drew Brees runs a play-action, faking a handoff to the running back and rolls out to his left. Most of the Falcons took the bait, but two outside linebackers are swarming in on Brees. Tre’Quan Smith has run a straight line to the back of the end zone and is wide open, so Brees heaves a pass to him straight up in the air as he gets hit. The ball hangs in the air for what seams like a year as the fans all slowly stand up together in harmony.

Smith runs right under it and dives, dragging his feet on the turf as he makes the catch. A slight bobble occurs as Smith goes down, but it appears to be a touchdown. Game: New Orleans. Right?

Neither referee calls anything for five seconds before they all huddle to discuss whether it was a touchdown or not. Instead of making a call, the players, fans and coaches all wait. The refs jog to the video review station…

This is a made up event, but hopefully it sets the scene for us to dive in together on our feelings toward VAR (video assistant review).

When I was growing up, the ability to see my favorite teams whenever I wanted was not around. It wasn’t just sports. If I wanted to see my favorite Boyz-II-Men video on MTV, I waited and watched for hours and endured endless commercials just for the chance to hear my favorite song. Back then I thought it was agonizing, but I’m a little nostalgic for that sort of anticipation.

Technology has improved, changed, and shaped our world in my lifetime, perhaps more than any other period in history. I joke with my friends that we thirty-somethings were raised on both sides of the tech boom. We grew up without cell phones. I remember waiting for dial-up computers to get on AOL. We thought Super Mario World was beyond the depth of imagination.

In high school we discovered text messaging and played Snake on our phone during class. In college came Facebook. We were computer literate, but the omniscience of social media hadn’t truly dawned on our world until we were out of schooling.

Though I may sound like an old pill there, I appreciate the effect technology has had on our world.

Just not with video review in sports.

The job of being a referee or umpire is difficult. Nobody likes you. You are only recognized when you mess up. The weight of the game is on your shoulders.

Many referees take that job very seriously, and it’s usually the experienced ones. The ones who have been through blowing a call late in the game that costs a team a win. When you mess up on that scale, you avoid making the mistake again.

The development of technology and having an HD camera focused on your every move should have made officiating better, in theory.

The more they mess up on national television, the more they want to improve.

That didn’t happen.

The microscope became so zoomed in on bad calls that all of the refereeing world became hyper-focused.

We began to see how important the job was. Though much like with teachers, the higher-ups refused to acknowledge the importance of the job and pay these people accordingly.

We saw referees go on strike in football. The NFL cared so little about them that they brought in replacement referees and continued the season without budging.

Needless to say, the games were poorly officiated, dangerously so, but the referees so desperately needed their jobs that they accepted less than their worth and continued working for The Machine.

People don’t often think of officiating as a safety job. We think referees are there to make calls and keep the clock. As an athlete I can tell you it is so much more than that.

Go play pickup basketball at your local park to see how well self-officiating works. Every game usually breaks out in arguments, fights, and often injuries.

The referees are the safeguards of the sport. I wouldn’t call them government, more like police.

A good officiating crew goes unnoticed by fans, but not by players. When I was at Louisiana Tech playing basketball and saw that Mike Thibodeaux was leading the crew, I knew the game would be called correctly.

Having that assurance means the world to a player. No hidden agendas, no bias, no hatred toward a coach for something he did years ago. You knew the game would be fair.

Which is why I have such an issue with video review. It takes the job of officiating out of the referees hands.

In my Saints scenario above, most people would argue that reviewing the play and getting the call “right” is most important. Let me push back against that.

First of all, video review does not ensure a correct call. There is ambiguity to video just like in real life. Super-slo-mo or the highest-def camera will not do the job in this case.

Smith appears to bobble the ball ever so slightly as he drags both feet across the green part of the end zone. Half of the referees say it’s a touchdown, the other half think not.

Second, having video review in the first place takes the job of officiating in real time away from the referee. Instead of using his training and experience to make the right call as it happens, the referee defers. If he was to call a touchdown, video review would have to be indisputable (whatever that means) in order to overturn it. So he abstains.

Third, it kills the momentum of the game!

Seeing those hands go in the air to confirm a touchdown is the release we have been waiting for. The fans have paid hundreds of dollars to support their club. We’ve been waiting all year for this moment. Instead of celebrating or throwing our beer on the ground in disgust, we’re waiting for another screen to tell us what happened. The few hours we’ve set aside to look away intermittently from our phones and have fun have now turned into waiting on the zebras to watch a TV and tell us what we just saw.

It’s hard to choose which part of the argument is most important, though I would say killing the tension is certainly up there. That release is gone when you have to confirm everything by video.

We must get rid of video review all together, no exceptions.

It will make officials better at their jobs in the long run. If they get a call wrong, that’s the way it goes. Even with video review they get them wrong all the time.

But at least the games will keep a shred of purity. It will be the people deciding the outcome, not another screen.

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