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Burke, Paine, and the Pains of Instant Replay

3:49 PM, Mar 31, 2014 • By ADAM J. WHITE
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In The Great Debate and elsewhere, Yuval Levin describes the fundamental difference between conservatives and progressives, rooted in the debates of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine:

To my mind, conservatism is gratitude. Conservatives tend to begin from gratitude for what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it, while liberals tend to begin from outrage at what is bad and broken and seek to uproot it.

This week, that divide is perfectly illustrated not in politics, but in sports: namely, the quagmire of instant replay, which repeatedly marred this weekend's college basketball games and which is about to wreck a lot of perfectly good baseball.

In case you missed it, this year's NCAA tournament has seen several down-to-the-wire games brought to excruciating halts, in the final seconds, over instant replay. In a thrilling game between Wisconsin and Arizona yesterday, the referees stopped the game with 3.2 seconds on the clock, and took several minutes to review whether Wisconsin or Arizona had tipped the ball out of bounds. It was a call impossible to make in real time with absolutely certainty, but replay didn't make it any easier--from a variety of angles, the play was simply too close to call. (And the decision to overturn the initial call, and give it to Arizona, was questionable at best.) The call didn't affect the outcome of the game--Wisconsin held its lead for those last three seconds--but it certainly took away from the drama that makes college basketball such a great sport to watch.

There are countless other examples, large and small. Iowa State's win over North Carolina came only after a bizarre scene in which referees spent minutes watching fractions of seconds tick down in slow motion, to see when the clock started, when time out was called, and when the buzzer sounded. The victory was marked not with players throwing the ball up in celebration, but with UNC's Roy Williams conceding to ISU's Fred Hoiberg with a handshake. In other games, referees spend minutes figuring out whether there's, say, 5.2 seconds left on the clock or 5.3, while the excited crowd deflates.

In insisting upon pinpoint accuracy for a given call, fans forget that part of the referees' job, as the game has evolved, is not just to decide specific calls precisely, but more generally to balance a number of equities -- who touched the ball? was he touched by the other player? -- and make the best decisions they can, in real time. In striking those balances, a call might be "right," even if it's not technically perfect. 

National sports radio host Steve Czaban hit this point on this morning's show

For years, for a hundred years now in basketball, officials have been making out-of-bounds calls based on, not just who was the last to touch it, but they've been making these calls based on the principle of who caused it to go out of bounds, which player had inside position and would have reasonably been able to gather the ball without the other player creating an action that would knock the ball out. And they synthesize all that, and they make an imperfect judgment call for microscopic replay

He shouted that last bit, and rightly so.

So the use of instant replay in college basketball is proving to be a great disappointment, but it will likely pale in comparison to the mess that instant replay is about to deliver to Major League Baseball, which returns this week from hibernation. 

This year, the MLB finally acquiesced in the face of complaints over umpires' blown calls, and will begin to allow instant replay of a much broader spectrum of plays, as Yahoo's Jeff Passan explains.

Professional baseball has crafted a sparkling new infrastructure in its pursuit of perfection. But as perfect as the system is, it's not clear that it's fit for mere mortals who will implement it on the field. L.A. Angels beat writer Mike DiGiovanna summarizes the problem:

First, the manager, in what amounts to an on-field filibuster, must initiate a discussion with an umpire to give his video coordinator time to review the play to determine whether the call should be challenged.

This will take at least 30 seconds, though rules state a manager must request a replay before the pitcher steps on the rubber and the next batter steps into the box. If the call is challenged, it then must be reviewed by replay officials in New York City, adding to the delay.

Umpires will don headsets near the dugouts or backstop to communicate with the New York office. Once they get a ruling, it will take more time to inform the managers and jog back to their positions.

Commissioner Bud Selig had long opposed instant replay because he feared it would hamper the pace of the game. Well, guess what?

"There's no way it's not going to slow the game down," said Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick.

And, of course, these delays inevitably will become strategic tools: "Say a pitcher is throwing a shutout in the sixth inning and the opposing manager hasn't used his challenge. The manager, in an attempt to disrupt the pitcher's rhythm, could challenge a play even though it's clear the correct call was made."

Even setting these practical problems aside, there are problems even more fundamental. In the era of instant replay, what will come of baseball's unwritten rules? For example, there's the "neighborhood play": traditionally, a shortstop or second baseman turning a double-play isn't required to actually touch second base before throwing to first. As long as he's "in the neighborhood," the runner is called out--in order to save the fielder from getting his leg exploded by runner's a hard slide. The neighborhood rule has been with us, unwritten, for a long time--but how can it possibly survive now that instant replay can review force outs?

This isn't to say that the old system didn't have costs of it own. Obviously it did, as evident to anyone who saw umpire Jim Joyce accidentally rob pitcher Armando Galarraga of a perfect game in the ninth inning of a 2010 game. And of course the same can be said for college basketball.

But in imposing ever more instant replay on these games, we both gain and lose. We gain at least a few calls that would otherwise have been blown. But we lose something broader--the excitement of the last few seconds of a college basketball game, tied with the shot clock turned off, no time outs left, and the crowd (at home and in the stands) going crazy. In baseball, we'll actually see slow games get even slower.

Thomas Paine would probably love this: seeing referees and umpires make mistakes on the court or the diamond, he would have the leagues move heaven and earth to solve that problem, at whatever cost. But I think Edmund Burke would urge caution: As we impose rationalistic new rules on the sport, it's not clear the gains will be worth the broader losses to games that have evolved over more than a century. There will be plenty of time to ponder this, as we watch huddled refs and umps ponder the latest replays.

 

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