Instant replay review was supposed to be a godsend for sports. Referees are humans and, as we know, humans often make mistakes. With the aid of technology and the ability to analyze plays frame by frame, video reviews were supposed to make plays more objective and less controversial. It was meant to save us from points of contention when the stakes are highest.
But the opposite has happened. Instead video review is actively ruining sports as we know them, making games laborious and cumbersome, while adding more controversy. I long for the good old days when referees relied on the naked eye to make calls in real time. Now, refs turn to review for all of their answers, like a child who looks to his or her parents when overcome by shyness.
We’ve seen video review practically ruin the Pac-12, where referees feel the need to painstakingly talk over every first down or two-yard rushing touchdown. Yes, getting calls right is important, but so is keeping games exciting and watchable.
I remember sitting in the press box during the USC-Arizona game last November. In theory, it should have been a thrilling contest. Quarterbacks Sam Darnold and Khalil Tate traded big plays in a 49-35 shootout. But with 17 penalty calls and seemingly thousands of video reviews, the game lasted over four hours and finished up just before midnight. What could have been an exciting game ended up being as stop-and-go as L.A. traffic. There’s a problem here: We’ve reached the point of instant replay overkill.
Video review was first introduced in the NFL in 1986, and it became universal in college football in 2004. Oftentimes instant replay is necessary in football, especially after close sideline catches or fumbles (probably the toughest plays to call with the naked eye). But today instant replay is being overused to the point where the entire definition of a catch is now up for debate.
The catch debate began during a 2014 Divisional Round playoff game between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers. In the fourth quarter, Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant made an incredible grab on fourth down to keep his team’s hopes alive … or so we thought. After a challenge, the referees determined that Bryant did not maintain possession throughout the catch and overturned the call. It still remains one of the more nonsensical calls in NFL history. He totally caught it.
The debate continued with subsequent plays, like this season when Steelers’ tight end Jesse James appeared to catch a touchdown against the Patriots with just 30 seconds left. It was also overturned after video review, because he apparently did not maintain control of the ball. To most fans, it looked like a clearcut touchdown.
Finally in March, NFL owners voted on a new rule that cleared up the catch issue (under the new rules, Bryant and James’s catches would have held up). However, I can’t help but think that the controversy would not exist if not for video review and its frustrating ability to make games overly complicated and convoluted.
The video replay situation is much worse in Major League Soccer, where the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) was introduced in 2017. It added an extra referee who reviews important plays from the booth.
“The VAR’s job is to watch those monitors, quickly identify potential missed calls, watch replays and communicate what he or she is seeing to the center referee over a headset,” Sports Illustrated’s Alexander Abnos explained last year.
According to Abnos, VARs are supposed to review only important plays like goals and red cards. Yet just a year after its implementation, VAR has been vastly overused to the detriment of MLS.
On Sunday, league-leaders Atlanta United FC thought they had secured a 2-0 lead against New York Red Bulls after forward Josef Martinez scored a skillful goal. No foul was called on the field, but acting video assistant referee Mark Geiger apparently thought Martinez committed an infraction before netting and brought the play to a review. After it was looked over for about two minutes, the goal was disallowed. Yet, Martinez had barely grazed a defender before scoring.
Later in the game, the Red Bulls were awarded a penalty kick, following another foul with very little contact. But this time time VAR was not used, to the chagrin of Atlanta fans. Suddenly the game was swung by two goals in New York’s favor, almost solely due to referee decisions. New York went on to defeat Atlanta 3-1.
Soccer is supposed to be a free-flowing game with limited stops and breaks, yet VAR is doing its best to destroy that notion. Consequently, referees are now far too involved in the outcome of games.
“This train is not going to stop. VAR will continue to dominate storylines, but that’s not what’s most important here,” wrote Joe Patrick for Dirty South Soccer. “The most important aspect of VAR is how it toys with human emotion. It leaves fans feeling empty and foolish for celebrating a goal. This is the problem. The game is meant for the fans, but it’s becoming more and more academic every passing week.”
Instant replay can be a good thing. It can help clear up controversial scoring plays and make sure teams don’t get away with egregious fouls or penalties. But when overused, video replays make games choppy and often add new layers of dispute — exactly what they are supposed to prevent.
Referees need to stop relying on replays to make most of their important calls and start using their own eyes. I’m not sure if I can sit through another four-hour Pac-12 football game.
Trevor Denton is a junior majoring in journalism. He is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “T-Time,” runs every other week.