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Play It Again, Ref.

Instant replays--and controversy--come back to the NFL

The last time the National Football League (NFL) tried instant replay for its officials, the system failed, largely because it wasn't very instant.

Between 1986 and 1991, the league allowed referees to watch the televised, slow-motion video of a disputed play--the same footage TV viewers could see at home--to correct a blown call. But the process took so long, and proved so inconsistent, that it infuriated fans, players, and coaches. After six years of trying to get the system to work, the league finally gave up and decided to live or die by what the refs called the first time, as it had since the game's inception.

Now instant replay is back. This season, the NFL has introduced a new system, one it says will work much faster. But using videotape remains controversial, not only in football, but across many sports. Some fans and players believe replays undermine the authority of league officials, who need to know their split-second judgments will stand as law. Others say that with so many dollars and jobs riding on the outcome of a contest, it's absurd not to use readily available evidence to overturn a missed call.


Should technology be used to supplant human judgment? If so, when and how? Do replays insure greater fairness, or do they open an avenue for more mistakes?

Last year, the NFL suffered a series of high-profile mistakes that decided the outcome of crucial games. The most embarrassing occurred on Thanksgiving Day, when, in a tie game between Pittsburgh and Detroit, officials bungled the coin flip preceding overtime and awarded the ball to the wrong team, which then scored to win the game.

Where football could have used a replay system last year, hockey had one and, at the decisive moment, didn't use it. The final game of the 1999 championship series ended in dispute because officials did not use the league's replay system to review Brett Hull's winning goal for Dallas in overtime against Buffalo. The goal had set off a championship celebration, and rather than review the goal's legitimacy, the league decided to let the celebration continue--even though the replay indicated the goal should have been disallowed.


There has been no call for replay in basketball, where baskets are self-evident and fouls present a large gray area subject to interpretation. Baseball has no plans for replay either--the teams are apparently willing to live with the occasional miscall as part of the game. When National League umpire Frank Pulli improperly viewed a replay on a nearby TV monitor this season to judge whether a home run was fair or foul, the league reprimanded him.

Whether the new football system proves any better than the old one remains to be seen. "We are implementing this system to correct the major, major mistake," says Seattle head coach Mike Holmgren, the co-chairman of the NFL's competition committee. "Human error happens, but this system gives us the best chance of correcting it."

To most fans, officials are always going to be wrong unless proven otherwise. If anything, maybe Instant Replay II will show the refs to have been right more often than anyone wants to believe.
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Title Annotation:National Football League introduces new instant replay system
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 4, 1999
Previous Article:Not Fade Away.
Next Article:2 for the road.

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