The NFL had a bit of a problem in January when refs blew a crucial call in the NFC Championship Game. The New Orleans Saints will never recover from that loss. However, their prolonged whining helped push the proverbial ball over the goal-line on the issue of pass interference and instant replay.
Owners approved a change yesterday that will make that aspect of the game reviewable and open to challenge. That whooshing sound you hear is Pandora’s Box creaking open. Or maybe it’s the Ark of the Covenant being cracked and melting the faces of all those watching.
I have some serious concerns it’s more of the latter, though history has taught us people will wade through a river of sludge to watch any precious football.
Perhaps this won’t become an absolute mess with the game turning into something that resembles Constitutional lawyers parsing over the definition of the word “catchable.” Perhaps games won’t last an extra 15 or 20 minutes and be decided in extremely unsatisfying ways. Perhaps the level of controversy won’t sky-rocket.
Let’s say our worst fears aren’t realized and the changes are a slight positive. The question still remains: was football even meant to be played like this?
Technological advances have altered the framework of all the major sports. Even baseball has instituted replay to decipher if a runner’s foot comes off the bag even a fraction of an inch. Basketball suffers through interminable delays in the final minutes in an attempt to decide which player’s entangled fingers touched a ball last.
All of this is done in the lofty and self-important interest of Getting It Right. For some, there is no higher calling than making sure any injustice born out of human error in officiating is rectified. Considering the stakes escalation, that’s understandable.
But is getting it right the ultimate goal? To me, the ultimate goal is to determine a winner within the framework of the game. We’re going to get into a philosophical living document vs. stone tablet argument here when it comes to rules discussions — and I know this is going to sound like the ramblings of a Luddite — yet I really believe it.
Rule changes in any sport that are only enacted because the game is on television are outside the original scope and should be strongly reconsidered. Calls were meant to be made in real-time with human judgment, not aided by supercomputers. What’s taking place on a sandlot should translate, in spirit, to the highest levels.
Unrealistic? Yeah. Too idealistic? Probably.
At the same time, we should be real about what’s going on. Pros are not playing a child’s game anymore. They are participating in an entertainment product, built on the back of the more carefree game.
Reviewing and challenging pass interference may be high-reward. It’s also high-risk. Tinkering with the game’s DNA too much can have consequences and therefore must be done judiciously.