The 13-3 Houston Oilers took on the 14-2 Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1979 AFC championship game. Getting even this far was largely uncharted territory for Houston.
At the time, the Houston Astros had never won a World Series, the Houston Rockets were without an NBA title, and the Houston Oilers had never held up the Lombardi Trophy.
In the 3rd quarter, the Oilers marched down the field with an opportunity to tie the game. Quarterback Dan Pastorini floated a perfect touchdown pass to Mike Renfro in the back corner of the endzone. Renfro hauled in the pass, toe-tapping his feet in-bounds. Houston tied the game.
But the ref missed the call.
The 1979 television technology was reliable enough. The broadcast showed the replay of the catch over and over again, as the commenters admitted that the call was blown. Houston fans, antsy for a chance at their first championship, were infuriated. They had proof that Renfro was in bounds, but there was nothing that could be done. The Oilers settled for a field goal and went on to lose the game.
The issue lies in the fact that the NFL had the chance to get the call right, but they didn’t. All the technology existed to institute an instant replay system, but that system remained unheeded. Five years later, the NFL finally introduced video replay.
What is mind-boggling is that over forty years later, the problem hasn’t changed. Every major sport runs into major issues due to instant replay.
In the NFL, each team gets two challenges to use on calls that they believe were blown. If both calls are overturned, they receive a third challenge.
All scoring plays and close calls within the last two minutes of each half are automatically reviewed, but other than that, they must use up their challenges to try to overturn a call. If they are out of challenges, the call will remain missed, and there’s nothing the team can do about it.
Additionally, a team cannot challenge a penalty (with a few exceptions.) After a horribly blown pass interference no-call cost the Saints a chance to advance to the Super Bowl in 2018, Saints fans raised havoc.
They believed a Super Bowl had been stolen from them. By the 2019 season, the NFL chose to allow replays on pass-interference calls. Yet a majority of other NFL penalties, like holding, false starts, and offsides remain 'unreviewable'.
Major League Baseball (MLB) has it worse. While almost every single type of play in baseball is reviewable, balls and strikes calls are not, and these calls happen on every pitch. FOX and ESPN broadcasts now show the strike zone in live-time with the game, so that fans immediately know whether the umpire made the right call.
Every time the umpire misses a call, the broadcast reminds viewers that MLB has all the tools to get the call right every single time, yet chooses to rely on human umpires. Switching to an automated strike zone, or a “robo-zone” as many call it, would cost the MLB practically no resources, remove the possibility of missed-calls, and almost assuredly speed up the pace of play.
The NBA has established itself as the most progressive league when it comes to fixing their officiating problems, but in doing so, it opened the flood-gates on what seems to be a “referee vs. the world” war. The NBA releases a “Last Two Minute Report” after every game that fits a specific criterion: a team has been within a three-point margin of victory in the last two minutes of the game.
This report analyzes all the fouls and no-calls that took place and attempts to be as transparent with the fans about the correctness of the officiating as can be. The league also grades referees based on how often they are correct and publicly releases these grades. Consequently, referees have every motivation to get the calls right.
Yet referees are still viewed by fans and players alike as evil, game-rigging monsters.
The amount of human energy needed in the officiating process varies sport by sport. In baseball, where practically all the calls are simple, right or wrong decisions, machines can do just about everything.
However, basketball and football require more “judgment calls” that may need humans to make the final say. Either way, with the help of technology, every officiating decision can be called correctly.
A rebuttal to the notion that all calls should be made by computers, however, consists of the idea that sports are inherently human games with human mistakes, and the officiating should be no different. For if we disapprove of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs, we acknowledge that we want sports to be as naturally human as possible.
If an error by a player like Bill Buckner is part of the game, and it causes disappointment to millions of fans, then an error by the umpire can also be considered just part of the game as well.
Millions of baseball fans will argue that every umpire has a slightly different strike zone, and part of the game is for the pitcher to locate the home plate umpire’s strike zone early and to make the necessary adjustments. Some balls are “too close to take” with two strikes, and robo-umps detract from the centuries-old traditions and strategies of baseball.
The widely accepted rule in all sports that a call must have “indisputable evidence” to be overturned seems to be an attempt to appeal to these fans who desire a human element in officiating. But this unquestioned rule can be disputed.
If we can see that a call was most-likely wrong, but don’t have “indisputable evidence,” why should we have to stick with the call on the field? Say a referee rules a catch incomplete. On review, there’s a 90% chance that the receiver did, in fact, maintain possession through the ground, but the evidence is not indisputable. Shouldn’t we rule it a catch?
By sticking with the “call on the field,” we give the human officials power. To put it another way, we only hand over power from humans to technology when we are 100% sure the human is wrong, but we are willing to give the official 99.99% of uncertainty.
How we decide to deal with the issue of perfection in officiating will be very telling about the direction that society is heading. Do we want to get everything correct, sacrificing the human element in the process?
Do we want to maximize efficiency and production, no matter the human cost?
Or are we willing to give up the idea of absolute perfection in favor of empowering ourselves?
I believe we should look to our sports leagues for answers.
Written by Ethan Samuels, Edited by Alexander Fleiss, Jack Argiro & Jason Kauppila