The corrosive effects of steroids extend beyond the physical damage they wreak on the bodies of athletes. Records are clobbered, but asterisks appear beside names. Heroes become criminals. And fans lose trust. The shameful and illegal actions of a few—I’m looking (mostly) at you, baseball—have negative repercussions for the entire sport. Until recently, I associated the term “performance-enhancement” with the use of drugs, such as Human Growth Hormone (HGH), or other tactics, like blood doping. But an essay in the November 2, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated introduced me to another corrosive type of performance-enhancement: instant replay.
In “Harassment in the Workplace,” Joe Posnanski wittily defends officials, referees, and umpires. Instant replay, he argues, nullifies the purpose of officiating, thus removing the human factor—a necessity—from sports. In my favorite passage, Posnanski writes:
In the NFL, officials barely even count anymore—coaches have their own flags, television cameras are the final arbiters, and after overturned calls referees are forced to stand before the crowd and admit their mistakes, like guilty schoolchildren. Next, there will be a giant chalkboard on the field for them to write, I promise to watch more closely, 500 times.
Beneath the comedy, Posnanski makes a serious point. Sports are metaphors for life, and life is a metaphor for the existential conflict between our human imperfections and the visceral desire to overcome them. After all, Gold Glovers make errors with the bases loaded, and LeBron James misses buzzer beaters. They lose the game, but we (ultimately) forgive them. They’re only human, we say.
I am not equating steroids with instant replay, but I am suggesting that instant replay does harm to the integrity of sports. In the end, practice is the greatest performance-enhancer, and officials, like athletes, practice to perfect their performance on the field. When technology interjects to correct the mistakes officials make, sports relinquishes its most precious quality: humanity.