Where sports and the surveillance state collide


National Post, 24 January 2019

Replay is here to stay. It does not make sense to deny referees access to what millions of viewers can see at home

The entire football world is talking about something that did not happen. For those outside that world, it is enough to know that in the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints game on Sunday, the referees missed calling an obvious penalty. So obvious that the offending — but not penalized — player admitted as much after the game. So obvious that the National Football League’s (NFL) supervisor of referees called the aggrieved coach to concede that, in fact, the referees had missed calling two penalties on that same play.

The result of that error was that the Rams won a game that the Saints were poised to win.

Given that, as a consequence of their ill-gotten victory, the Rams now go on to the Super Bowl, the intergalactic observance of America’s late imperial decadence — nothing could be more important in the life of the republic. So what is to be done about it?

Alas, the favoured American response to all matters of public consequence, litigation, is not available here. Somewhere down in New Orleans an entrepreneurial lawyer will file suit for the favourable publicity, but American courts, which arrogate to themselves questions of life and death and insist on holding sway over vast swaths of public policy, do not permit themselves to enter the holiest of holies, professional sports.

So this will have to be sorted out by the NFL itself. Since 1999, the NFL has allowed its referees to consult instant replay to confirm whether they made the right call in the moment. Video replay is now used widely in elite sports, including football, basketball, baseball, hockey, soccer, fencing and even rodeo. Somehow it seems lamentable that it is used in cricket, where the taking of sandwiches and tea ought to militate against the incursion of such vulgarities as video replay.

Replay is here to stay. It does not make sense to deny referees access to what millions of viewers can see at home.

Why didn’t the referees in New Orleans consult the replay and correct their obvious mistake? Well, because the penalty in question — “defensive pass interference” (DPI) — does not fall into the category of those matters that are eligible for replay review.

So now that a crisis stalks the land, there are demands to change the rules of what can be reviewed to include pass interference penalties.

There is a good case for that. The DPI is the most consequential penalty in football, and often does determine the outcome of games, as it would have on Sunday in New Orleans. Indeed, the DPI is such an important part of the game that it is a key part of offensive strategy, and no consequential passing play in football is complete until the players check to see if the referees have called (or not called) the DPI penalty.

For good measure, the Canadian Football League (CFL) does permit replays to be used to review DPI calls. How that will influence the NFL debate remains to be seen. Will Americans feel embarrassed to be behind their Canadian counterparts and quickly want to catch up? Or will the mere fact that it is permitted in Canada make it an object of suspicion, like legalized weed or wait times for hip replacements?

The debacle in New Orleans gives an insight into a broader cultural trend, as our recreations often do. Human error occurs. Even by NFL referees, who are otherwise superlative in their work. The advent of instant replay has more often than not shown that referees, making judgments in a split second, get things right that replay officials judge in slow motion over several minutes.

Yet errors occur. And we insist that they must be fixed, not merely complained about. Increased technology and oversight are then employed, sometimes at great cost and inconvenience, to eliminate even the remote possibility of error.

Continue reading at the National Post: https://nationalpost.com/opinion/father-raymond-j-de-souza-where-sports-and-the-surveillance-state-collide