World Cup replay? NBA, MLB lessons
A controversy-free tourney would be great, but a blown call could also improve sport
Right: Everybody ready for the instant replay debate to go global?
Your wish is about to be granted.
Call it a timing issue of monumental coincidence, but close on the heels of long, emotional replay conversations in Major League Baseball and the NBA comes the FIFA World Cup. And FIFA, international soccer's governing body, wants no part of a replay world.
Specifically, the sport's overlords back in March declared that replay would have no place in this quadrennium's event, explaining, "We were all agreed that technology shouldn't enter football because we want football to remain human."
Might want to check with umpire Jim Joyce about that, or the NBA referees who were shown upon replay in Game 3 on Tuesday night to have blown at least two calls. But the larger point is simply that the technology has now reached critical mass when it comes to fixing whatever in the world's elite athletic events can be fixed.
Foolproof? Hardly. There isn't a system in any sport or league that is without its detractors. But if soccer is waiting for its Armando Galarraga moment to spur it on to the use of the best technologies available to ensure fair results, it is already four decades late. That moment occurred in 1966.
Back then, in extra time of the World Cup final, England's Geoff Hurst took a shot from close range that hit the underside of the crossbar and went straight down. It either crossed the goal line or it didn't. After much gesturing among international officials who did not speak a common language, the goal was awarded to England, which ultimately prevailed 4-2. Although the English have long held the view that the proper call was made, one of their own elite institutions, Oxford University, later concluded that the goal was no good.
On the one hand, the disputed goal has become one of the great retold stories in World Cup lore. On the other, it was very possibly a blown call that decided the international championship of a global sport. And although the technology to solve that kind of dispute did not exist at the time, it does today.
In 2001, a British inventor with a doctorate in artificial intelligence named Paul Hawkins developed the Hawk-Eye technology that is now used to settle virtually every disputed line call in professional tennis (outside of the French Open). Despite an occasional gripe from players, the system, which uses high-speed cameras to follow the flight of every shot hit during a rally, has been overwhelmingly embraced.
More recently, Hawkins has refined that technology to determine whether a soccer ball has crossed the goal line. That won't settle every dispute in a soccer game, but goal or no goal? It strikes one as a fairly useful, even event-saving tool.
Then again, similar technology exists in Hawkins' imagination for baseball and calls on the bases, but, judging by Bud Selig's words from last week in the wake of Joyce's colossal gaffe that cost Galarraga a perfect game, the commissioner isn't even remotely interested. Hawkins recently told Time magazine that he can't get a decent meeting with high-end people in MLB. That is consistent with Selig's very guarded response to last week's doings.
Although the aftermath of the Joyce-Galarraga incident was one that put a warm human face on the game of baseball, its roots were in avoidable chaos. But Selig sounds resistant to much advanced conversation on the use of replay in the sport beyond what already is in place. That's a wonderful sentiment, until somebody muffs a gigantic call and no system exists to correct it.
(Full disclosure: I was a longtime holdout against the use of extensive replay in baseball when the technology usually confirmed that umpires got an astounding percentage of bang-bang calls correct. But the systems available now are just too good, and too easily accessed, to be ignored. It's staggering that MLB would continue to put itself in a position of looking askance at those evaluation tools.)
Of course, dilemmas remain. In one sequence Tuesday, NBA replay showed that a ball had last touched Boston's Kevin Garnett and should be awarded to Los Angeles, contrary to the ruling on the floor. In another, replay showed that a ball had last touched Lamar Odom, but only after he had obviously been fouled by Rajon Rondo. The league's replay rules do not permit the officials to go back and retroactively assess the foul, but perhaps that is part of the future refinement of the rules associated with the technology.
Effective replay certainly puts a greater percentage of the game back in the players' hands, and that's really the idea: for fans to remember players and games, not officials' blown calls. There is plenty of human error elsewhere on the field or the court. If a sport can limit missed calls, it should simply do so.
FIFA in March made the additional comment that the technology is expensive, and therefore cannot be installed all over the world at all of soccer's amateur and professional levels (translation: Poor countries and poor people also play the beautiful game). How that relates to the officiating at the World Cup is absolutely beyond me, but there you go.
Then again, perhaps FIFA needs a Hurst moment in South Africa. Perhaps then it will understand. Tennis didn't embrace Hawk-Eye technology until after a 2004 U.S. Open match between Serena Williams and Jennifer Capriati that was rife with avoidable, correctable human officiating error. As was the case then, you'll have an infinitely better look at the World Cup games the officials are working than they will. That's a recipe for change.
Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His most recent book, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the top 10 sports books of 2009 by Booklist. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.