Proponents of instant replay as an officiating tool like to summon up apocalyptic visions of the moment when a major championship would turn on a questionable call that could have been reversed by a quick check of the videotape. That moment came in the third overtime of Game 6 of the 1999 Stanley Cup finals. Unlike the gloomy scenario envisioned by replay's supporters, however, officials did have replay at their disposal and did go to the videotape after Dallas's Brett Hull slid the puck past sprawling Buffalo goaltender Dominik Hasek for the apparent Cup-winner. Replay officials determined that Hull had kept control of the puck as it briefly left the crease, making the goal legal. Many fans—those in Buffalo, especially—didn't buy that interpretation.
So, in its moment of truth, did replay do the job it was meant to? Judging by the Cup finals' unpleasant aftertaste, no. What's more, the NHL's experience with video review on its grandest stage doesn't bode well for instant replay when it returns to the NFL this fall. Football fans should expect no more satisfaction with officiating than they got last year, when repeated bumbling by the refs renewed the outcry for replay.
More often than not, video adds to controversy rather than resolve it. (Just ask Zapruder.) Why? Because human beings still must interpret the events on the tape. Replay doesn't make the call; it merely shifts the onus from fallible officials on the field to fallible officials in the booth.
How often do you find yourself grinding your teeth as a sports-caster declares that a replay offers incontrovertible proof of one thing while you see something different? The tape is rarely cut-and-dried. After an arguable possession call in the 49ers-Falcons playoff game last season, Fox commentator Matt Millen said on the air, "If somebody tells me that instant replay wouldn't have overturned it, I'm gonna take the ball and shove it down their throat." In the studio at half-time, analyst Cris Collinsworth said he thought the refs had gotten it right.
We shouldn't have to resort to violence or videotape to resolve sports disputes. Games are meant to be played by people and officiated by people. Those who long for the days when sports were simpler would do well to remember that in those halcyon times, replay wasn't an issue. A blown call was a blown call.
Here's hoping that Super Bowl XXXIV doesn't hinge on a call that's sent up to the booth.