Starting this weekend, the National Football League will experiment with using instant replays to review referees' controversial calls.
To a lot of folks, this is a sensible, logical innovation taking advantage of the latest television technology. To the rest of us, it's an unnecessary intrusion into the imperfect art of officiating. Imperfect, that is, to the extent that probably 98 percent of all calls are correct.
The next thing you know, the NFL will want to use K-9 police dogs to sniff out holding violations at the line of scrimmage.
Although it's a well- intentioned idea, the use of instant replays potentially can damage the game as much as it helps it.
Cameras do distort, and the league could impugn its credibility and its officials with the cameras. A referee's split-moment 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 -- you're inviting the fan to doubt the whole process.
The experiment, to be conducted during eight nationally televised exhibition games, will begin with the Dallas-San Diego game Saturday (CBS), the Redskins-Raiders game Sunday (NBC) and the Denver-San Francisco game Monday (ABC).
The NFL's instant replay experiment will differ from the U.S. Football League's use of it during the 1985 regular season.
The USFL, in each of its four weekly televised games, allowed coaches 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 reviewed the play. If the coach's appeal was turned down, his team was assessed a timeout.
There were 53 challenges, and 14 calls were reversed.
In the NFL version, there will be no challenges allowed. An extra official -- in most cases, Art McNally, the league's supervisor of officials -- will sit in the press box with a TV monitor.
"If there's something you and I and Art McNally see on TV that is an obvious and blatant error, he'll signal the officiating crew by a magnetic device," said Jim Heffernan, an NFL spokesman. "He'll wait up to 20 seconds for an instant replay. If it doesn't come on, play continues. If it does come on and he thinks there's an error, he'll call downstairs and the play will be reversed."
As in the USFL, a call can be reversed only on possession- related plays. The extra official will have no contact with the network or the coaches.
According to Val Pinchbeck, the NFL's director of broadcasting, the experiment is intended to help eliminate such errors as the one that occurred in the 1984 regular-season finale between the Los Angeles Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers. In that game, Dokie Williams of the Raiders caught a touchdown pass, "but anyone watching could clearly see that his foot was out of the end zone," Pinchbeck said.
The league will review the results at the end of the '85 season, but at least one observer figures the critics won't have to worry about instant replay calls in the near future.
"I don't think it ever has a ghost of a chance to be implemented for the regular season," said Terry O'Neil, executive producer of CBS' NFL games.
Last month, ESPN broadcast 160-odd hours of 1984 Summer Olympic highlights. The ratings stunk. Then, ESPN undertook its most extensive live coverage ever, more than 40 hours from the National Sports Festival. The ratings stunk again.
Enough of track and field, swimming and diving, gymnastics and volleyball. Starting Tuesday, Aug. 27, ESPN will try to inject some ratings life into a traditionally slow sports night -- it's professional wrestling and roller derby back-to-back!!!
"In terms of popularity, fan reaction and its ratings track record, pro wrestling is a proven TV winner," said Steven Bornstein, ESPN's vice president for programming. "Combining wrestling with roller derby, which also has enjoyed television success in the past, will provide viewers with an evening of action-packed, light entertainment."
Yes, every Tuesday night starting at 8, it will be 90 minutes of the American Wrestling Association (AWA) followed directly by 60 minutes of the International Roller Derby League (IRDL). The whole thing will be called "Slams and Jams."
And those of you not smitten with the whole thing, be thankful that the District still isn't wired for cable.