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Don't play it again

The NFL should do away with the instant replay

The NFL has always led the sports world in taking itself too seriously. And of the many rule changes in sports, surely instant replay, which will be with us again this season, is the most self-important one of all. According to the supporters of instant replay, the most compelling argument in its favor is that instant replay corrects "injustices." Here's news: Real injustices are a baby dying in poverty or an innocent man being sent to prison, not things that occur during a football game, even a game with Roman numerals trailing behind it. A bad call by an official is simply that, a bad call. It happens. The game goes on, and the Republic doesn't crumble.

There's also an aesthetic argument against instant replay. It just doesn't look right, feel right. Games are charged by their own rhythms. Baseball's rhythm, for example, is methodical, a long, slow drink of lemonade, while basketball's is frenzied, a whirring blender of activity. Football has a rhythm uniquely its own, too: short, explosive bursts of action followed by breaks that momentarily diminish the tension, with the tension slowly building again as the players emerge from the huddle. Instant replay breaks this rhythm. There is nothing more boring in all of sports (though the rerack on the pro bowling tour comes close) than watching 22 behemoths twiddle their thumbs while an unseen auditor in a booth studies a replay. Especially when the original ruling probably will be upheld, as was the case with 336 of the 374 calls reviewed last season, the first year in which this techno-tedium was employed by the NFL.

Instant replay is surely one of the reasons for the inordinate number of time-consuming committee decisions made by NFL officials in 1986. What in the world do these guys talk about when they huddle in the middle of the field? Who had the crab omelet and who had the dry toast at breakfast? Jeez, make the call and get on with the game already. Unfortunately, with the baleful eye of Big Brother upon them, the zebras are running scared.

Pay no mind to the NFL party line espoused publicly by the officials. They do not enjoy being overruled, and there's no reason they should. Their calls are already endlessly replayed and scrutinized through that miracle of hindsight, videotape—the laser-perfect perspective of the press and the coaches. As evidence, this from Redskin coach Joe Gibbs: "I don't want to get home Sunday night and see a miscall that cost us a game." Single miscalls don't cost games, Joe. I'll bet you have said that yourself somewhere along the line. The key to winning is to coach a better game so that your team won't be in a position where one drop of a flag makes the difference.

I have heard it said that instant replay is necessary because football is the hardest game to officiate. More self-important nonsense. Consider the hockey referees, who—I just learned this—must not only break up fights but also whistle infractions. And these guys are on skates! Talk about having your hands full. Or how about the plate umpire in baseball, who makes hundreds of calls every game? Does that mean baseball should create a computerized strike zone (the Japanese are reportedly working on such a device) to eliminate any imperfections in ball and strike calls? Of course not.

Dallas Cowboy president Tex Schramm, leader of the instant replay forces, has been quoted as saying that an official's error in Super Bowl XIX (49ers versus Dolphins) was "a turning point" in the crusade to achieve zebra perfection, which is a concept even more odious than parity. Replays showed that the correct call on a Joe Montana pass that was ruled incomplete should have been reception, fumble, Miami ball. The 49ers, who were leading 21-10 at the time, went on to score a touchdown and eventually won 38-16. More crucial to the final score, however, was the way that Montana controlled the action. If anything needed to be adjusted in that game, it was not a single call by an official—it was Miami's defense.

Similarly, there was intense scrutiny of the bad call that enabled the Bears to kick a field goal just before the end of the first half in Super Bowl XX. Patriot boosters were quick to note that it "marred" the game. It was the Patriots who marred the game. They were little more than sacrificial lambs in the second half of a 46-10 drubbing. Good teams overcome the occasional bad call. Always have. Always will.

Ultimately, instant replay is an extension of the crybaby mentality that pervades our society. Nothing is my fault—it's his fault. We didn't lose—the refs stole it. That's the message going out to our young people, too, as coaches of kids' athletic teams will tell you. Instant replay reinforces the notion that officials are bad guys who need watching.

Well, they don't need watching, at least not by an instant-replay camera. Let them do their job. To strip another layer of humanity from a game whose pooh-bahs already evaluate by computer and worship at the shrine of the VCR is wrongheaded. Imperfect owners own teams, imperfect coaches coach them, imperfect players play on them and imperfect spectators spectate at them. So imperfect officials can sure as hell officiate them.