All-New NBA Instant Replay, and That Pesky Human Element

So… something weird happened Thursday night in the Miami Heat’s victory over the Phoenix Suns from Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix . However, I want to describe it before you see it. Don’t scroll to the bottom of this entry until you’ve finished reading.

Its the 3rd Quarter and the Heat lead by 5 with about 4 minutes left. Suns guard Jevon Carter plays a passing lane and intercepts a pass on the defensive end of the floor. He charges down the left wing to the other end, draws in the defense as he gets to the rim and flips a quick pass to the cutting forward Cameron Johnson on his right. Johnson leaves the ground attempting to finish a lay up and gets bumped on the play by Miami star Jimmy Butler. Johnson misses the lay up, the whistle blows and Johnson is set to head to the free throw line.

There’s just one thing… Butler is adamant that he didn’t foul Johnson. Luckily, this is the first year in NBA history where his team has recourse. Not only does Butler believe he didn’t foul, but head coach Erik Spoelstra confidently calls a timeout, followed by a wave of his right hand in a circular motion. Indeed, he’s calling for a coach’s challenge.

The coach’s challenge is newly implemented this year in the NBA, after years of being a part of other major American sports. Adam Silver and company are following suit in an effort to clean up officiating decisions. And who can blame them? Instant replay is there to make sure the call is absolutely, positively correct.

In case you don’t know the new rule and didn’t click the link, each team gets one challenge per game. Coaches can challenge a personal foul call against one of their own players, an out of bounds call or a basket violation, such as a goal-tending. Personal fouls can be challenged at any time; out of bounds and basket violations cannot be challenged in the final 2 minutes of regulation or overtime. The league office can also request a review of any such similar play, including in the final 2 minutes.

Sounds good, right? So Spoeltra knows exactly what he is doing. He calls a timeout as required, followed by signaling for a home run (you’ll see what I mean when you see the vid), which is the signal required by rule to challenge a call. He struts confidently onto the floor, certain of himself. Butler looks incredulous. In his mind, there is no way on God’s green Earth that what just transpired was a foul. A green light flashes on the scorer’s table and the referees head to the monitor.

For the next 2 minutes everyone sits around and waits. Any discernible momentum for the game is gone. Players, coaches and fans stand by idly. At home we can see the replays on television.

Its clear. Johnson makes an offering at the rim, expecting one of the better defenders in the league in Butler to challenge his shot. Butler does something funny though. He keeps his arms down and rotates his body completely away from the play. He does the opposite of fouling. Really, he does the exact opposite of defending. Contact is minimal to negligible. Lots of us who have even just played pick up games can empathize with Johnson. He didn’t miss the layup because of contact. He missed the layup because he was anticipating contact that never came. No wonder Spolestra and Butler look cool as cucumbers.

This call should be a snap. The referees spend nearly 2 minutes at the monitors. They must be trying to go over how to reverse a foul call into a non-call. This is a new concept after all.

Having come to their conclusion the purveyors of basketball justice return to the floor and…THE CALL STANDS?!?!?!

There is no justice.

And ladies and gentlemen, this is why I hate instant replay in sports. We all just wasted our lives, killed the momentum of the game, blew a Miami timeout and brought a lot of attention to a questionable call. All of that, just to still get the call wrong.

Now take a look for yourself and tell me that I’m wrong.

Instant replay was supposed to promise us the right call every time just by its existence. The mere fact that officials can go back and look at the play again and correct themselves itself theoretically now means we should expect perfection. Unfortunately, its just not that simple.

Plays like this one are subjective. There is no cut and dry answer. There is no clear and present boundary between a blocking foul, a charge call and a non-foul. It is all subject to the interpretation of a human. A flawed human, who can either rightfully agree or disagree with the thousands of wannabe referees in the crowd. He can also just be too proud of himself to change the call, want to cover for his fellow referee colleague, or any other number of reasons that he or she might interpret a call a certain way.

On the other hand, some calls really are cut and dry. Out of bounds calls. Goal-tending or not. Is the ball-handlers foot on the line or not? No judgment there. Just facts.

But even these calls aren’t always that simple. There are times where we want the spirit of a rule, but not the actual rule to the letter of the law. Baseball has these. Think of all the base runners called out by replay because when the runner slid his body came off the bag for a millisecond.

Think of Game 6 of just this past World Series this year where the umpires rightfully called runners interference on Trea Turner. Thousands of fans were in an uproar. The rule was implemented to the letter, but its practicality is questionable. Replay isn’t about practicality. Its about black and white where sometimes it doesn’t or shouldn’t exist.

But those aren’t basketball examples! Try the 4th Quarter of Game 1 of the 2018 finals. Kevin Durant was called for an offensive foul late in the game when he bowled over LeBron James on his way to the rim. Referees declared they were using replay to judge if James was in the restricted area when making contact with Durant. This is legal. They could use replay to see where LeBron was clearly positioned. Strangely, the rulesalso allowed for referees to then reverse any judgment made on the foul. In the end, the charge call on Durant was reversed, but not even because LeBron was in the restricted area. He wasn’t, but the refs used the review as an opportunity to reinterpret their original judgment into a blocking foul. Two different views, two different decisions and in a pivotal moment the referees changed a judgment call- a call contradicted by the referee expert on the broadcast (see below).

Replay often is time consuming, impractical and doesn’t work as intended. And really, its no one’s fault. Even in the most crystal clear of times it can be wrong. Which is why I say that if leagues want to use it on cut and dry calls, then more power to them. Be aware though that plays viewed in the replay lens may not always be as clear as they appear. Its only ever going to work to the best of the ability of the people being employed to interpret it.

Its harder than you think to get rid of the human element.

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