An idea whose time should never come -- instant replays to decide referees' controversial calls -- is making its way through the braintrust of the U.S. Football League, a.k.a. the UnSatisfactory Football League
Fortunately, if not surprisingly, ABC and ESPN are refusing to participate directly in the USFL's reactionary future vision.
"Our policy remains the same: we will provide a line feed into the press box as we always have. Nothing more," said Scotty Connal, ESPN's executive vice president. "We're there to televise the game. That's our first responsibility. I will not involve my producer otherwise. It's that simple."
" . . . There should be a clear difference between our responsibility as a broadcaster and any role we might have in making game decisions," Jim Spence, senior vice president for ABC Sports, told the Associated Press. "(It's not) a proper role as a broadcaster."
The USFL experimented with the replays last week in the New Jersey-Tampa Bay game and will try it again tomorrow in Houston's exhibition at Birmingham. Coaches have the right to challenge one call in each half on three types of plays -- turnovers, out of bounds and crossing the goal line. An official in the press box then reviews the play. If the coach's appeal is turned down, his team is assessed a timeout.
"The decision is not firm whether we'll go ahead with it or not," USFL spokesman Jim Byrne said. If the USFL goes with it, replays would be used only during the league's four weekly televised games.
Even if ABC and ESPN don't cooperate, the USFL could proceed with its plan, Byrne said. "With a possible total of four appeals a game on plays that always involve the ball, we feel there'll probably be a replay anyway," he said.
Still, without overt TV cooperation -- ABC and ESPN actually stand to benefit if the innovation works -- USFL officials might be deciding appeals after looking at only one replay. And many folks aren't convinced that TV replays are the way to go.
As Connal pointed out, "98 percent of (officials') calls are correct. I think they're opening a pandora's box and creating tremendous problems by this . . . Cameras can be very distorting."
Cameras do distort (videotapes of most weddings, for example, show a happy bride and groom), and the league could impugn its officials' and its own credibility with the cameras. A referee's instantaneous judgment of a play is the most honest one. No thinking, just reacting. Once you delay the game and allow another official time to think about what the call might mean -- it could deny a team a playoff berth, for instance -- then you're inviting the fan to doubt the whole process.
It's best to leave the games in the hands of capable people.
At the outset of winter, Ken Schanzer, executive vice president of NBC Sports, said, "Our future in college basketball is very much in balance." Rich Hussey, director of program planning, called it "a key year for us. We've got to get healthy again."
Here in mid-February, NBC's basketball coverage remains in intensive care. Last season, NBC's basketball ratings dipped 23 percent from 1982-83. This season, the ratings are down another 2 percent.
But NBC is not yet ready to take its ball and go home.
"We are in the middle of an extensive study of how we proceed in the coming years," Hussey said. "We've got to find a way to exist until we can get a crack at getting the jewel."
The jewel, of course, is the NCAA's Final Four, which CBS has wrapped up through 1987. NBC's loss of the tournament, Hussey said, "has had a dramatic effect."
It's difficult for NBC to sell affiliates its college basketball package without the lure of the championship, and with the glut of locally produced and regionally syndicated games available, affiliates often ignore the network.
Hussey hopes to sell the NCAA on a two-network plan in which CBS and NBC share regional postseason coverage and rotate televising the Final Four, similar to the NFL's Super Bowl deal with the networks.
Next season, NBC is committed to seven Big East appearances, 13 with the Pacific-10 and 13 with Lorimar syndicator, which handles the Southeastern Conference and Louisville. Agreements with the Big Ten and Atlantic Coast Conference expire after this season, but NBC will aggressively pursue another ACC package.
"We consider ourselves the network of ACC basketball," Hussey said. "I want to see this work. I have a personal stake -- I'm a hoops nut." Hussey just hopes that his bosses -- "the green eyeshades, the guys who are in the offices with no windows" -- can see the light to more college basketball on NBC.
Here is the brief remarkable story of Bernie and Harvey Smilovitz, brothers who wanted to be broadcasters.
Bernie Smilovitz, 32, graduated from the University of Maryland in 1975 and worked at WTOP Radio for five years before becoming WTTG-TV-5's weeknight sportscaster.
Harvey Smilovitz, 27, graduated from Maryland in 1979 and has worked for WTOP six years. Last weekend, he made his first appearance on Channel 5, substituting for sportscaster Steve Buckhantz, who was ill.
Did Bernie advise Harvey to follow his footsteps? "Actually," Harvey said, "he told me that I'd be better off working in a Giant Food store or in the business field. It's a tough market to crack, but the right breaks happened to me."
It is believed to be the first time in broadcasting history that two brothers named Smilovitz have been successful in the same major market.