“This is not live! Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again!” Those words echoed through the households of millions of Americans during the December 7, 1963, CBS television broadcast of the annual Army-Navy football game. This game featured the first-ever use of instant replay on national television as Army quarterback Rollie Stichweh’s fourth-quarter touchdown run was replayed on-air at full speed. At the time, instant replay was novel. But now, it has infiltrated every major sport, leaving fans with one simple question: Does instant replay truly improve the sports viewing experience?
Originally conceived by Tony Verna, instant replay was designed to fill the time between snaps in a football game while also showing the action that takes place away from the ball. However, in the 60 years since its inception, instant replay has evolved and expanded far beyond that. In 1986, the National Football League (NFL) became the first major league to utilize instant replay to review and potentially overturn the calls made by the officials on the field. Since then, the National Basketball Association (NBA) has adopted instant replay in order to determine which team last touched a ball before it went out of bounds, whether a foul was flagrant, or whether or not a shot beat the buzzer. Most international soccer leagues have also implemented a Virtual Assistant Referee (VAR) to decide if a goal was offside or not or if a penalty kick should be given for a potential foul. Instant replay has completely overrun the sports world and is also a prominent part of baseball, hockey, tennis, golf, and most other sports.
The rapid expansion of instant replay across all major sports makes one thing clear: it serves a purpose. At the end of the day, all referees, no matter how good they are, make incorrect calls. The use of multiple camera angles and advanced, high-definition screens allows referees to review the play and uphold the fairness and integrity of the game. This allows for the athletes on the field and court to decide the outcome of the game, rather than poor officiating. Especially in tight matchups, instant replay can be the difference in determining the winner, as every little call is capable of making the difference. From this perspective, instant replay is a brilliant technological advancement that has increased fairness in sports.
Additionally, instant replay can make the fan experience more enjoyable. After a big touchdown or a buzzer-beater three-pointer, many people enjoy seeing the play again in slow-motion and from multiple angles in order to relive a spectacular moment. However, this is a double-edged sword.
While some fans enjoy the occasional replay, most fans agree that the cons of instant replay outweigh the pros. The biggest concern with instant replay is how it affects the pace of play. When something is under review, all playing is ceased. This stoppage means fans at home are stuck watching an assortment of instant replays and commercials while fans in the stadium are left waiting for the call to be made, aimlessly staring at the jumbotron. In the stadium, fans and athletes alike are also forced to wait to celebrate their plays when being reviewed by the officials, stripping away the element of spontaneous excitement that sports possess. Furthermore, athletes are upset that this play break can cool down a hot team on the brink of a victory and provides a chance for exhausted players to get a crucial rest. Instant replay is capable of turning the last two minutes of a basketball game into a 25-minute showdown, which is certainly not a good thing.
By stripping away the human element of the game and introducing this technological tyranny, instant replay has also negatively impacted the authenticity of sports. The argument has been made that missed calls are an ingrained element of sports and that this overanalysis of every call is changing the game. This further scrutiny over every minuscule play results in NFL catches being overturned for the slightest bobble of the ball that could never have been seen with the naked eye. Catches that would have stood decades ago are no match for the intense lens of instant replay.
Yet another unexpected issue with instant replay is the unrealistic standards that have now been placed on referees. Since every decision a referee makes is reviewed by the league, the fans, and almost everyone watching the game, all of their mistakes are being publicly broadcasted to the world. Fans expect them to be perfect even though they have an incredibly difficult, intricate, and fast-paced job. This has led to cheating accusations on many referees and an underappreciation for the difficult work that they do. In this past NFL season, less than 10% of reviewed plays were overturned or changed, meaning referees are doing an incredibly accurate job and are deserving of more credit. If sports fans are willing to overlook a dropped fly ball or the occasional air-ball, then they should be willing to overlook the occasional miscall as well.
Instant replay has evolved tremendously since that first Army-Navy game back in 1963. It has taken over almost every major sports league and has completely altered the game-watching and playing experience. While instant replay does clearly increase the fairness of every game and ensures that the right calls are made to the best of their ability, sports fans are left with one question and it is up to you to decide. Does instant replay truly improve the sports-viewing experience? Or has it negatively metamorphosed sports away from their roots and fundamentals? Regardless, instant replay will never go away. But hopefully, the major sports leagues can help improve many of the issues of instant replay that fans and athletes have found and vocalized in order to positively transform athletic competitions for the better.