The other day, when Craig Stadler took out a towel and had himself a $37,333.33 bath, sport as we know it began beating its noggin against the wall, Charlie Brown-style.
The Walrus had his second-place check ripped up at the Andy Williams Open because a handful of rules aficionados, watching NBC's third-round highlights, correctly pointed out that Stadler had illegally "built his stance" by kneeling on a towel to protect his polyesters from unsightly stains. No matter that the offense had happened 24 hours earlier; the PGA DQ'd Stadler, who saved an $8 laundry bill but wound up getting taken to the cleaners anyhow.
More than that was the unsettling fact that once again television had gone beyond its old job as presenter of sports to alterer of them. Think back on this vast wasteland of a year in sports. We had Brent Musburger, that noted basketball constable, in the thick of deliberations over whether a UNLV basket had come before the halftime buzzer and, if so, had it been a three-pointer. Musburger played host at the CBS monitor as he and the ref studied a replay and said yes to the first question and no to the second. After the ref departed, CBS showed a different replay that proved it was a three-pointer. Musburger then wondered aloud whether he should tell the officials. All of this was especially comical because neither he nor the officials seemed to realize that three-point vs. two-point decisions can't be corrected via TV replay. UNLV lost the game by a point. If we follow the PGA lead, do we give the Rebels three points instead of two? Further, do we assess Musburger a two-shot penalty?
And what was the lingering image of the NFL season if not the sight of some insurance broker from Dubuque holding a finger to his ear, waiting for some retired insurance broker up in the booth to rule on an instant (hardly) replay? For excitement this ranked just ahead of watching Kris Kristofferson eat borscht, yet replays decided games.
Replay cops even affected the Super Bowl by certifying as incomplete a catch made by Denver Bronco tight end Clarence Kay. This forced the Broncos to try a risky pass on the next play, resulting in a safety, cutting the Broncos halftime lead from three to one and...well, you know the rest. Nine mysterious minutes later, somebody in the CBS truck suddenly discovered a replay showing Clarence making the catch A-O.K. If we follow the Stadler rule, we boot Up With People off the field and replay the down. And while we're at it, we undo Don Denkinger's boo-boo at first base and give the Cardinals the 1985 Series.
The ethics questions prompted by the Stadler case are pesky. What if next week the boys in the truck find footage of Jack Nicklaus violating some equally critical rule—say, operating the ball washer with the wrong hand? Does the producer run it on the air, knowing that if he does his biggest ratings draw is out for the weekend?
What about the guy running the instant-replay machine? What if he has his house riding on the Rams and his tape shows Eric Dickerson's foot touching the sideline on a touchdown run? What keeps him from suddenly spilling coffee down the blasted machine's innards? Or better yet, fast-forwarding right on past it?
Something's got to give, and so far, it has been sanity. "Technology is supposed to improve sport," says NBC executive producer Michael Weisman. "But right now, technology is running sport." Put another way, the Big Eye is supposed to be bringing us the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, not causing it.
Luckily, there is a wonderfully simple answer. The networks should give total control of replays to game officials. This would be a piece of cake in the NFL. Weisman assures us that a modicum of bucks buys four replay machines and four monitors for each stadium. The network then merely feeds the officials' booth the same live pictures it gets in the truck. Any screwups are the NFL's problem. If the NCAA insists on consulting replays, let them sit a man down in front of a monitor and watch for himself. Heaven knows Brent is overworked as it is. And there should be some sort of statute of limitations. Stadler got jobbed because at some point—whether it was when his scorecard was approved or he was popping open his first beer of the evening—the round should have been declared over.
The tube and sports can live happily ever after if the big boys on New York's Network Row just put their Guccis down. What it really comes down to is this: Whom do you want when it's fourth-and-goal and the game's on the line: Walter Payton, running back, Chicago Bears; Lawrence Taylor, linebacker, New York Giants; or Joe Blow, Super Slo-Mo, Local 762?