The National Football League has voted to put some of its referees' decisions to the test of the VCR next season. If officials on the field obviously botch certain calls, another official, sitting in the press box and watching the videotaped replay on a TV monitor, will be empowered to reverse them. "We felt instant replay had become such a fixture that we should give the officials a chance to see what the public was seeing," said Dallas Cowboys president Tex Schramm.
This innovation will appeal to the good-government element among football fans and to truth-loving people everywhere. But have the football owners given any thought to that sizable segment of their core constituency that deep down doesn't really want the referees to see what the viewers are seeing?
Listen to enough football talk and you'll see what we mean: there is a persistent strain of fascination with the injustice of it all. A large number of the most memorable plays seem to be those on which a referee blew the call. Such plays, which are always "turning points" in "must-win" games, are discussed for hours. Everybody saw the replay 20 times. There is a chorus of sighs and if-onlys.
The people who are most fervently devoted to this kind of barroom wailing are the same revanchist sorts who, in other times and places, have kept national resentment simmering over lost provinces and ancient tribal wars. In pro football, they serve the purpose of keeping the sport warm during the off-season. Most people, even those who follow the game with some diligence, are likely to have to pause for a minute to recollect who played in the last Super Bowl. But the keepers of the grudges remember and relive the entire season by gnawing over every questionable ruling on fumbles, pass interference and offsides. They do so through winter, spring and summer, and then they pass their tales of injustice on to the next generation (". . . and that, my son, is how we were robbed of a wild-card playoff spot in December of 1977.")
Such people enjoy having the superior knowledge provided them by the slow-motion replay that life isn't fair and authority is sometimes blind. How will they like having to share it with some do-good official who watches the same videotape they do, cheerfully agrees with them and then agrees to right the wrong? The NFL had better take a close look at its TV ratings next season before it goes any further in its quest for perfect justice.