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The NBA's instant replay failure

It's been nearly four years since the NBA started allowing instant replay to determine close out of bounds calls late in games, and the system is still very much broken.


The use of instant replay in sports can be a controversial topic. Lots of people don't like the practice of using Big Brother to enhance the abilities of the people who have been deemed arbiters of the rules of the game. Some don't like the delay caused by the interruption necessary for somebody to review the tape. Some think that the human error associated with missed calls is a part of the game. And some just don't like change. No matter the sport, be it football, basketball, baseball, whatever, you can find somebody, somewhere that thinks instant replay sucks. Hell, even in tennis, where replay has been distilled into a science so fine (and fun!) that observers actually get excited about a replay challenge, living legend Roger Federer has a known distaste for it.

Personally, I think the vast majority of anti-replay opinions are rather stupid. The use of replay does interrupt the flow of the game, but the trade-off (ensuring the correct call) is worth it in most circumstances, especially because all of the entities that have implemented replay have done so in ways that prevent interruption on a mass scale. In the NFL, teams have limited replay challenges and are punished if they challenge a play that turns out to be correct. In the NBA, play can only be stopped for a replay in the last two minutes (other replay reviews, such as determining whether a shot was a 2 or a 3, can be delayed until the next natural stoppage in play). Waiting on a replay can be a pain in the ass, but getting the call right is worth that pain every time.

And "Human error is a part of the game"? It doesn't get much stupider than that. Yeah, human error is part of the game, but not a part of the game we should be striving to protect. The relative limits of human strength are a part of the game, too. That doesn't mean we don't allow players to lift weights. Human vision is pretty inconsistent, but I don't see a whole lot of people saying that contact lenses shouldn't be allowed. Fighting against the limitations of the human body are what sport is all about, so why would anybody argue against allowing the officiating of sport to be enhanced?

Instant replay is, almost universally, a good thing. Using technology to enhance our ability to ensure a fair and accurately officiated game is a good thing. The only valid reason to dislike instant replay is simple: If it doesn't work. For instant replay to work doesn't require that instant replay always gets calls right. That would be impossible, because the world somehow manages to create situations in which it is impossible to tell exactly what the "right" call is, even in super slow motion. Most times, upon further review and with the speed cut by a factor of 10, the right call is clear cut. However, the rare situation occurs in which, even with all the enhancements of modern technology available, the "right" call is still a judgment, and any judgment is going to see people both agree and disagree with it. No, even if instant replay doesn't ensure the correct call 100% of the time, instant replay still works, because the mission statement of instant replay is to enhance the ability to make the proper call. For instant replay to not work, the implementation of it must create situations in which it does the opposite; the only way replay can "not work" is if it makes officials worse at officiating.

Congratulations, NBA, your instant replay doesn't work. As far as I know, the NBA is the only entity that has implemented replay in such a way that guarantees that a correct call on the court will be overturned because of instant replay, given a specific sequence of events. And the sequence isn't even that rare:

  • The ball goes out of bounds (in the last two minutes or in overtime) after a player is stripped driving to the basket. Referee awards the ball to the team that was stripped, but the play is reviewed.
  • Instant replay shows that the defending player never touched the ball because instead he grabbed the offensive player's arm. Fouls are not part of what is considered reviewable.
  • Ball is awarded to the defending team, because the offensive player touched the ball last.
Replace "after a player is stripped driving to the basket" with "two players fighting for a loose ball" or "after a player has his shot blocked" and the situation still applies. This exact sequence happened last night. It happened a few weeks ago. Any time there is a review of an out of bounds call, I immediately dread that a missed foul was committed on the play. Which happens fairly often because a) reviews only take place in close games, where both teams are probably trying pretty hard to win, and b) because referees are known to "swallow their whistles" at the end of close games and let the players decide things on the court. It's impossible to know exactly how often replay gets out of bounds calls like this wrong, but the circumstances behind it don't seem particularly unusual. Does it happen 25% of the time? 33% of the time? Based on this very small, but impartial, sample from Clips Nation, could the NBA's replay review system be getting out of bounds calls wrong 50% of the time?

No matter the number, anything higher than zero is a problem. Remember, we're not talking about eliminating the possibility of mistakes or inaccuracies, because that would be impossible. We're talking about eliminating the possibility that a review can reverse a correct call (in spirit, at least; the call itself is still incorrect because the truly correct call would be to call the foul in these situations) in favor of an incorrect call, specifically because replay is limited to reviewing only half of the action taking place (i.e. who is touching the ball). This could be fixed in a variety of ways: the most logical would be to allow the referees to review the entire play and retroactively call fouls if necessary, but that does open up a Pandora's Box of possibility because things look different in slow motion than they do in real time. If you go down this route, at some point there will be gray area where you can't tell whether a foul has been called or not, and then what do you do?

Another possibility would be to write the instant replay rule in such a way so as to allow the referee to award the ball out of bounds to the team that deserves it in the "spirit of the play", basically saying "Yeah, Kobe touched the ball last, but only because Teague grabbed his arm, which is why I awarded the ball to the Lakers in the first place. Lakers ball". This would allow the refs to continue to officiate close games with a measured hand, prevent games from being decided by free throws, and most importantly, ensure that the positive effects of replay review are not tainted by these individual effects. It gives referees too much power, in that it basically asks them to determine when and where to implement the rules, but in reality, NBA refs have been flaunting that power since the dawn of basketball.

And the third possibility? Ditch replay altogether for out of bounds circumstances. If you can't design a replay system that ensures, at the very least, that said system won't be detrimental in determining the correct outcome, then perhaps you shouldn't have a system in place at all.

Those are just a few possible solutions, but don't hold your breath on the NBA actually doing something to fix this problem any times soon. Here's the thing; the link to Clips Nation was a breakdown of four replay reviews which occurred during basketball games between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. In 2010. In the NBA Finals. In 2008, a similar situation developed in the NFL, where the rules of instant replay implementation caused referee Ed Hochuli to overturn a call in a game between the San Diego Chargers and the Denver Broncos which resulted in Denver winning the game. The NFL competition committee addressed the issue in the following off-season. The fact that replay possibly altered the outcome of a game was immediately deemed unacceptable and quickly corrected. It didn't matter that the game was just an early regular season game which ended up not having any implications on the postseason (San Diego ended up beating Denver out for a playoff spot). The NFL quickly realized that the possibility for instant replay to overturn a correct call in favor of an incorrect one because the rules of implementation were poorly written is kind of a big deal. Meanwhile, the same thing happened to the NBA, repeatedly, at the most important stage of their season, and they've done nothing to correct it three years later.

Instant replay, when utilized properly, is a valuable tool in assisting referees and officials with the difficult task of applying the rules of sport to situations that move far faster than any human being could ever hope to fully oversee. But, like doctors taking the Hippocratic Oath, the first rule of instant replay must be "Do No Harm." Every professional sports league that has implemented replay review has understood this rule, and taken quick action to correct any issues that might be in conflict with that oath, save one. Only the NBA has failed to implement the most basic tenet of instant replay.

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