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Tracee Hamilton - Sports Columnist

Instant replay: Upon further review, its time has come

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By Tracee Hamilton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 29, 2010

I've always been okay with human error. Expecting people to be perfect all the time is a recipe for dissatisfaction and unhappiness -- your own, not the rest of the world's.

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Human error has been a part of sports since the first caveman grooved a fastrock past the second caveman, only to hear the third caveman call it a ball. Mistakes are part of the lore and myth of sports, from Fred Merkle's boner to sending Babe Ruth to the Yankees for cash. Sometimes the error is good for your team; sometimes it's not. (Sometimes, it rains.) The idea is that these mistakes should even out over, say, a century or so.

But I've come to feel differently this summer. Jim Joyce's terrible call that ruined Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga's perfect game really made me re-think my position. But the dreadful officiating in the 2010 World Cup pushed me over the edge.

We're okay with letting automobiles parallel park themselves, but God forbid we use technology to help an official make the correct call? What's wrong with us?

I may not be a diehard soccer fan, but I can feel the pain of those who are. The ineptness and inconsistency of the World Cup officiating are almost unbelievable. The U.S. team was a victim of several questionable calls, including the goal against Slovenia that was disallowed because . . . well, we don't know why. The official never would say. Are you kidding me? At least Joyce admitted his mistake and apologized.

The buzzing over bad calls and non-calls is now threatening to drown out even the vuvuzelas as the knockout round continues. A goal by England on Sunday against Germany was disallowed even though replays clearly showed the ball crossed the goal line. Would that have affected the outcome, given Germany's rout? Perhaps not, but we'll never know, will we?

In Sunday's other game, Argentina was credited for a goal against Mexico despite a clear offside by one of its players. Again, it might not have affected the outcome. But in a low-scoring game such as soccer, every goal is important.

Sports already has plenty of intangibles, from travel to health to officiating. But over the years travel has become easier, and medical advances keep players healthier. Why shouldn't officiating also be allowed to improve?

FIFA, being FIFA, has reacted decisively to calls for change -- by banning the use of instant replay on stadium scoreboards in South Africa. Apparently, if no one can see them, the calls won't be egregiously bad.

However, mobile live television is available, and it won't take long to spread, which means even if replay is banned in the stadium, every goober in the stands will be able to see every replay the folks at home can see. At home, you can not only see replays as shown by the networks, you can record the games and watch the same play 1,000 times if that's your idea of a good time.

Basically, the only people who can't see the play over and over are the players and the officials. How many times did we see the Galarraga play in the aftermath? It took Joyce one viewing to see his mistake. Galarraga was the victim, of course, but you had to feel for Joyce as well. He can't possibly want to get something that wrong. Don't you think he would welcome a chance to fix it? A decent official doesn't want to get it wrong. (Although after seeing some World Cup games, I'm not sure we're always dealing with decent officials.)

Replay won't solve every problem, of course, and its use needs to be limited, especially in baseball, in which the games already take too long. Maybe a challenge system similar to the NFL's would work. Say you can't challenge balls and strikes; that's a given (for now). But maybe you can challenge plays at the bases, and you get two challenges a game. Jim Leyland would surely have thrown the red hankie after Joyce's call.

Like the NFL, the NHL and NBA have managed to institute instant replay without ruining their respective sports or measurably slowing their games. FIFA, on the other hand, already allows a player to take a dramatic dive, writhe on the field in agony, then lie motionless on a stretcher until he reaches the sideline, when he pops up like a horror movie villain, alive and well again. When you let that slide, it's tough to deny a delay that could help determine fairly the winner of a game.

Plays such as dives can't and shouldn't be reviewed, of course. You can't mandate judgment out of an official's job, much as you might like to. But at the very least, FIFA could allow the use of electronic chip technology to determine whether a goal crossed the line. FIFA pleads cost, but every pickup game in the world needn't be wired. Start, at least, with the sport's upper tiers. If marathons can outfit entire fields with electronic chips, surely FIFA could manage a few before the 2014 Cup?

This seems a crazy topic to be debating in 2010. We have allowed technology to improve our lives in myriad ways. We have Roombas and cars that parallel park themselves and electronic nose hair clippers. And we are able to discuss all these improvements, all the time, with all of our electronic communication gadgetry -- proving that not all electronic advances are necessarily improvements.

All the electronic chips in the world will never eliminate human error. We are what we are: fallible, flawed and often flailing. Most days we need all the help we can get. The first step is admitting it.


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