As any science fiction writer will tell you, ever-advancing technology is both a gift and a curse. It’s great to use tech to solve a problem that was time-consuming, difficult or all but impossible to solve before, but where does it stop? How much is too much?

Take, to pick an example chosen completely at random, instant replay in college and professional football. We can all agree it’s useful to stop a game and take a second look to confirm that, no, that receiver’s foot was definitely out of bounds before he possessed the ball.

But such an advancement has come with a cost, especially in the college game.

In college football, games aren’t so much as officiated as they’re ruled over by the replay official. Lording over the field from the press box and the off-site replay command center like gods where they are seen by and publicly accountable to no one, replay officials don’t work to support the on-field officiating crew. No, the on-field officials work in service of the the all-knowing, all-powerful replay officials they serve.

These oracles are granted the power to swoop in it at any time, as often as they want, and stop the game for however long they see fit, to change the call on the field over a simple differing of opinion.

It’s gone from, Oh, his foot was clearly out of bounds to If you slow it down, zoom in and look at *this* angle, you can see his foot hit a blade of white turf first, so we’re saying he was out of bounds. The burden of proof has gone from criminal court — where any conviction must be beyond a reasonable doubt — to civil court, where standard is simply “more likely than not.” What the actual, on-field officials saw develop in front of their eyes right in front of them is now just evidence to consider while the omniscient oracles in the replay command center decide amongst themselves what really happened.

This has led to an unintended consequence where the actual game officials are now hesitant to trust what they see happen right in front of their eyes, for fear of being second-guessed and overruled by the Eye in the Sky.

This is a football website, but it’s not a football-only problem. To illustrate this point, let’s look at April’s college basketball national championship game, where instant replay stopped the game to overturn a play that was originally ruled as Virginia’s DeAndre Hunter knocking the ball out of Texas Tech’s Davide Moretti’s hand to rule that, no, the ball glanced off Moretti’s fingernail on its way out of bounds. This is despite the following:

  1. The official who had a clear view of the play instantly ruled the ball off of Virginia.
  2. (1:31:05) Play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz, “And it’s out of bounds, staying at this end. That was Hunter reaching in, knocking it out.”
  3. (1:31:12) Color analyst Bill Raftery, “They want to look at it again. I think they got it right, though.”
  4. (1:31:31) Raftery, “Yeah, I think they got the right call.”
  5. (1:31:39) CBS rules analyst Gene Steratore, “I don’t see anything there that jumps out at all, no. That just looks like a ball out of bounds for Texas Tech right now.”
  6. (1:32:18) Steratore, “At times, guys, I will tell you, when you start running replay really, really slow, you get a little bit of distortion in there as well, so you’ve got to be cognizant to that.”
  7. (1:32:32) Color analyst Grant Hill, “I thought (Moretti) touched it last there, that last angle.”
  8. (1:32:50) Steratore, “It looks like Hunter’s hand is away from the ball when Moretti still has it…. This is really a close play.”
  9. (1:33:18) Steratore, “Wow, guys. When I see this one from the base line, this angle right here from the base line, this puts Moretti’s pinky on it.”
  10. (1:33:32) Nantz, “Virginia ball!”

Maybe Moretti’s pinky really did touch the ball after Hunter’s middle finger, maybe not. It’s impossible to say beyond any clear-and-obvious reasonable doubt.

And that’s the entire point, isn’t it? If you need to study a play, for nearly two and a half minutes, to overview a call on the floor that four separate people saw the same way live, you’ve completely obscured the original point of instant replay. You’ve deployed technology in search of a problem, not the other way around. You’re so far in the Machine that you forgot why you climbed in to begin with.

Nothing illustrates this point more than Steratore cautioning the broadcast crew and the audience that staring at a replay over and over and over can trick your brain into connecting dots that may or may not be there… only to fall victim to that fallacy himself, literally a minute later.

None of this was the plan when instant replay was first developed. But, as with any other technology, instant replay has grown, and grown, and grown, to the point where the game stops and starts at the convenience of those who control the technology that rules over the game.

That’s why Thursday’s statement by Canadian Football League commissioner Randy Ambrosie was so refreshing. Read it in full below.

With the 2019 CFL regular season about to kick off, we want to be as clear as possible on the role of the Command Centre, the standard on which it will conduct video reviews and the philosophy behind that standard. The Command Centre will focus on only overturning calls or non-calls made on the field where a clear and obvious mistake has been made.  In other words, we do not want the game officiated from the Command Centre. The officials on the field have the best sense of the game and usually have a superior vantage point compared to a camera on the sidelines or in the stands.

The Command Centre is just a “back up” to correct clear and obvious mistakes – what are sometimes called egregious errors. Anyone who has played the game, or cheered for a team, knows how one views any play can be somewhat subjective. So how do we, as objectively as possible, define clear and obvious?  Clear refers to the visibility of the issue in question. Can you see, for example, the ball clearly on the replay? Or the foot on the sideline? Is the camera angle straight down the line? Or is it off to the side? Obvious refers to an indisputable reference point, such as a yard line, a sideline, or a knee down. Can you easily see, for example, that the contact on a receiver was early? Or do you have to resort to looking at it in slow motion?

Simply put, you shouldn’t have to watch something several times, or watch at different speeds, if it is clear and obvious. Why is clear and obvious our standard? Why not strive to get every single call right, even if the error was less than clear and obvious?  We want to keep the length of Command Centre reviews reasonable. We do not want video review to slow the pace or flow of the game. We especially do not want it to adversely affect our fans’ enjoyment of the game.

Watching players stand around while the Command Centre looks at a play for a long time is simply not fun. We also want to reduce the total number of challenges by making sure our coaches know they should not use a challenge to simply seek a second opinion; they should only use it to challenge clear and obvious mistakes.

Like every player and every official in every game, no standard is perfect. But we believe this approach is in the best interests of our great game.

Of course, any standard is only as strong as the enforcement behind it, and one man’s “clear and obvious” is another ego-driven replay official’s “Well, from this slowed-down angle…” It’s human nature to take any power granted us to the absolute max and beyond, and replay officials are no different, so it’ll be incumbent upon CFL officials to train their Eyes in the Sky to only hit the red button when absolutely necessary.

But Thursday’s announcement is a sound, common-sense directive that college football and the NFL should adopt without delay. And that’s clear and obvious.

SHARE
National columnist - Zach joined the staff in 2012...and has been attempting to improve Doug and Scott's writing ability ever since (to little avail). Outside of football season, you can find him watching the San Antonio Spurs reading Game of Thrones fan theories.