Let’s Take a Further Look… at Video Review

“The most important thing is to get the call right.” – Sports Leagues, everywhere, when announcing video review.

This is a noble goal, if it is in fact true. But more honestly, sports leagues have incorporated video review to avoid the inevitable backlash when a call goes really wrong. Look no further than the example the NHL used when they ushered in video review.

Hockey fans had a good laugh (except Nashville fans, I suppose), but the NHL used this highly abnormal blunder to justify expanded review of offside. The NHL – a league desperate for more scoring, remember – now allows coaches to challenge offside calls which may occur two seconds before a goal… or two minutes (theoretically). I went to an Oilers game last year where one such play happened, and fans waited five minutes as the league reviewed an offside from the zone entry on an Oilers power play. Minutes later, the goal was disallowed and no one in the arena knew exactly why. While this may be maddening to watch on TV, it’s confounding in person. Maddening and confounding are not emotions sports leagues are trying to elicit from their fan bases.

With this said, hockey doesn’t even compare to football, a sport mired in uncertainty in nearly every way. On both sides of the border we don’t know what is and is not a legal hit, or a legal catch, or a legal substance, or a legal football (has there even been a less interesting controversy than Deflategate?). The Canadian Football League, a league I hold close to my heart despite its countless imperfections, decided to take video review one step further. Not only can you challenge definitive (black & white) calls like a runner’s knee being down or if a receiver makes a catch, but you can challenge subjective calls like pass interference.

To the surprise of no one, this has not gone well.

The CFL failed to consider a number of important things:

  • You can call 10-15 penalties on nearly any play of a football game. There is a running joke in football you could call holding on every play. Coaches know this, and have used this as a way to challenge perfectly good plays. Was their illegal contact 50 yards from the play in a completely irrelevant situation? Well… technically. But when you remove discretion from the equation, technically is all that counts.
  • The CFL is a league plagued by incompetent officiating and leadership, and the league decided to add four or five stoppages a game to highlight its most glaring problem.
  • The video review team (whoever they are!) has recently got a few calls so laughably wrong that they should have issued a formal apology.
  • Football is already slow. Games take three hours to play. Do you really want to add another 15 minutes and four or five penalties?

Subjective video review will remove obvious blown calls from the equation, but it adds countless borderline, debatable calls. A blown call in real-time can usually be justified as a tough call at lightning quick speed, but an improper or debatable video review leaves the perceived wronged side even more furious.

Now, that’s not to say video review is useless or without merit. Video use for definitive plays is beneficial, in particular if it doesn’t interrupt game play. Tennis’ line system has removed wildly inconsistent line calls (did anyone see Daniel Nestor and Vasek Popsisil get ripped off the Olympics, where they played their semifinal on a court without video assistance?), and soccer’s goal-line technology – notifying an official within a *second* of a ball crossing the goal-line – is an indisputable success. Volleyball has also implemented a video system that is quick and efficient. But generally, video review, in particular in North American sport, has grinded play to a halt, and muddied the rules in already confounding sports.

Our obsession with video in sport has gone beyond on-field play; it’s also playing a role in off-ice discipline as well. Hockey and football dole out discipline in part due to “primary point of contact” on a hit. So, to review:

  • Players, moving faster than ever, make contact as they are flying towards one another.
  • The player with the puck/ball is moving suddenly to try to make the other player miss.
  • The player without the puck/ball is moving suddenly to try to make contact.
  • Analysts watch these plays and slow it down to the millisecond, trying to decide if a player made initial contact to the head or body.
  • If, after lengthy review on super-slow-motion, the contact is to the head… its illegal.

This is, obviously, stupid. And it probably speaks to our obsession over absolutes – getting the call right, making this play illegal, and this play legal. Unfortunately, sports generally involve shades of grey.

Unfortunately for people like me – in the anti-video camp – it’s not going away. Image conscious sports leagues are not going to roll back review, because the inevitable “video review would have prevented this!” article would be right around the corner.

But consider… if the call is right but the game sucks, what’s the point?


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