Avoiding Mistakes: Why Instant Replay Should Extend to Penalties

Josh RutledgeCorrespondent IOctober 22, 2009

HOUSTON - SEPTEMBER 27:  A NFL official mans the Instant Replay booth during the Jacksonville Jaguars game against the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium on September 27, 2009 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

It's official.

The hottest controversies in professional and collegiate sports have nothing to do with the players, coaches or teams. Nowadays, it's all about the referees and umpires.

After two questionable decisions in recent games, the Southeastern Conference announced this week it was suspending an officiating crew for the next several games.

What was the reason?

The league said video evidence did not support the referee's decisions during the game.

This isn't new, of course.

In the last several years, some of the top stories in sports have centered on a bad call by an official.

It's not just football. It's every sport.

Just days ago, Major League Baseball admitted it's umpires had made the wrong call in a game between the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Angels.

In the NFL, the Baltimore Ravens were questionably flagged for roughing Tom Brady just several weeks ago. In the NBA playoffs this past spring, the Denver Nuggets caught a huge break when referees concurred that Carmelo Anthony had not been fouled on a critical three-point shot. Fans were outraged when replays showed Anthony was clearly fouled.

It's happening time and time again, and it's only going to get worse. Apologies won't fix the mistakes. Suspending a group of officials won't fix the mistakes. No, the only way to fix this problem is to allow instant replay rules to include penalties called during a game.

Put simply, fans and media have better seats than coaches and referees. In front of a TV, with multiple different camera angles, fans see a lot more than the referees. Fans can rewind, slow down and re-examine a play over and over and over.

A decade ago, fans weren't treated to multiple angles, rewind technology and crystal clear definition. If an official missed a call, the fans probably missed it too.

It's not that way anymore though. It's an uneven playing field. Fans get a better view than the officials.

Referees have one angle and a split-second to make a decision. But no matter what the replays show, there is no going back. No wonder there are so many blown calls.

Of course, this should not serve as an excuse for the referees. Far from it. Referees are human though, and that's the problem. They are limited, prone to bias and just as likely to be affected by emotion as the fans.

Some people claim that the bad decisions are evidence of referees bias. It's impossible to know that. There's no doubt some calls are made because a referee is trying to fix a game. But there's also no doubt some bad calls are honest mistakes.

That's the point. Referees are human.

How many times have you watched a game and a possible penalty has occurred near the sideline or near a team's bench? It's almost accepted protocol that the call will favor the team that is standing on that sideline.

Why? Again, referees are human. It's emotional. Fans are emotional. So are referees.

But given all the money, time and effort put in sports, it's unacceptable that the emotions of a referee should dictate the outcome of any collegiate or professional sporting event.

This is exactly why instant replay was ever suggested in the first place. There was an accepted understanding that referees can and will make mistakes.

But why does a fumble get reviewed and not an excessive celebration penalty? Or why does an incomplete pass get reviewed and not a personal foul penalty?

Some people claim this would slow down the game. After all, that is the biggest criticism of instant replay. It slows down the game. But when it comes to penalties, that already slows the game down.

Who hasn't been bored stiff watching a game where the referees congregate to "discuss" a call for ten minutes?

It happens all the time. Instead of wasting that time, however, referees should use it to go back and review the decision.This doesn't mean every single penalty needs to be a ten-minute ordeal. It doesn't take that long.

Have an official off the field watching replays, though, examining different angles. Most calls are obvious. But on the ones that are not, especially calls that involve unsportsmanlike conduct or celebration penalties, a referee should be taking an extra look.

The Southeastern Conference admitted this week that "video evidence" supported the league's decision to suspend the officiating crew? How hypocritical is that? A league gets to use video evidence to find fault, but that same video evidence is not given to referees during a game?

If there were video replays allowed for penalties, Carmelo Anthony would have been shooting foul shots, and who knows what could have happened. If replays were allowed for penalties, Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green would not have been flagged for excessive celebration, and who knows what could have happened.

In each case, fans agonize over the "what if?" What happened to the days when fans asked, "What if Buckner hadn't committed an error?" or "What if Jordan had missed that three-point shot?" 

It's sad when the frustration of fans is over officials, not players. How many great memories are lost?

When fans look back on the Georgia-LSU game, they won't remember LSU's dramatic comeback. They won't remember anything that happened. They'll remember the officials making a split-second decision that could not be overturned, but one that ended up dramatically altering the game.

That's unfair to Georgia, and it's also unfair to LSU.

Critics say instant replay spoils tradition. But nowadays, it's the officials who are spoiling tradition.

It simply has to stop.