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On the Fallacies of Replay and How to Fix It

For the most part, college football is among the most liberal users of replay in the sports world. Unlike the NFL, college officials have an extra eye in the press box who can, without a coach’s challenge, buzz down to the field and make sure that the calls are made correctly and that games aren’t decided by the inevitable and sometimes poorly timed instance of human error. But for as much as replay is used, the tools replay officials are provided do not allow them to get every call right. As good as video technology has become, this is a problem for which there is no excuse.

First and foremost, football needs to employ side views in replay. Too often a replay of ball placement or a possible touchdown has to rely upon a high camera angle or an angle that is offset from the goal line. This makes the standard of “conclusive evidence” almost impossible to overturn on plays like the fourth down run by Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter late Saturday night. Even if the officials, when they finally went to the booth after a challenge by Pat Fitzgerald, felt that Colter did in fact pick up the first down, there was no way they could make that determination conclusively without the benefit of a camera placed on the first down line.

"I thought they spotted it where he initially fumbled the ball," Fitzgerald said. "That's what I thought from my vantage point. I asked the guys up top and they thought so. The hard thing is, when you watch all those plays and you watch football all the time, we're drawing cards at 8 o'clock at night and Monday Night Football is on, in the NFL you've got to challenge no matter what — there's no replay — and it just seems like anytime there's that big scrum, you're going to hear, 'The call stands.'

"I don't like that call. I hate 'the call stands.' It usually means there's something there, but we can't quite see it."

Spotting the ball is arguably the most arbitrary calls in the game of football and is often made by officials without a great view of the ball at the point the player makes contact with the ground. If there is one call in the game that needs replay, ball spotting is that call. Yet without a side view, it is virtually never subject to effective review.

Alleviating this problem would be very easy and could be done overnight. First of all, the first down marker could be fitted with small cameras at the bottom and top of the post aiming directly toward the opposite sideline. This would provide the view necessary to determine whether a first down was achieved and could even be outfitted with a virtual “plane” to aid the replay official in making a determination upon review.

Second, each of the endzone pylons should have a small camera attached to it, again pointing toward the opposite sideline. Just as with the first down marker, this would give replay officials a chance to review goal line and possession calls without the detriment of the offset angles to which they are currently limited.

Finally, the footballs and goal lines could be fit with the same technology that is starting to become used in soccer. Responding to several controversial goal line calls, FIFA began testing technology that would provide the lead official with an automatic determination of whether the ball crossed the goal line. In this system, the balls are fit with an electronic coil and the goal is enclosed by a low frequency magnetic field. Anytime the coils cross the plane, the magnetic field changes and the system tells the official a goal has occurred by way of a message on a specially designed watch worn by the lead official. There is no reason why a similar system could not be used in football as an additional aid.

Obviously the scoring of a touchdown involves more variables than a soccer goal, but combining a goal line camera with this magnetic technology, time-stamping both and then comparing the time a player is to be ruled “down” with the time the ball crossed the plane of the goal line should provide the game with a far more fool-proof means of review than what is currently used.

Beyond ball placement, there are several calls during the course of the game that should be reviewed and aren’t, with even more calls going to review without the need to do so. This is in large part because of the replay angles at the official’s disposal. Although the college replay official theoretically has more information at his disposal than the average fan, replay is done in college football (and basketball, for that matter) solely by way of the television video feed. So if you as a fan at home don’t see a replay of a call, neither does the “technical advisor” in charge of making sure that calls made on the field are in fact accurate.

This was on display clearly in the touchdown scored Saturday night by Carlos Hyde. The call on the field was that Hyde was down by contact, bringing up a fourth down near the goal line that initially prompted Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer to send out his field goal unit. Meyer then called timeout to rethink that decision and when, after the timeout, he sent his offense back on the field for a fourth-down attempt, the replay booth finally buzzed down to the field and ultimately made the correct call of a touchdown.

Why did that call take so long to go to review? ABC’s angle on the play came from up high and made the last twist by Hyde difficult to see. The broadcasters moved on under the assumption that Hyde had been brought down short of the goal line and began to focus on the decision Meyer had as to the fourth down call. Only after the timeout did a producer call for another look at the previous play and initiate discussion of the call, giving the “technical advisor” exposure to a better angle and prompting a replay and reversal of the initial call.

In essence, the current system allows ESPN’s producers more influence in the use of replay than the actual official in charge of ordering a review of a potentially erroneous call. This makes absolutely no sense and is again inexcusable given the technology that could potentially be at a replay official’s disposal.

Considering where society is in terms of technology, there is no reason why the highly profitable game of major college football cannot have a system of replay that is 99.9% accurate and virtually instantaneous. There is no excuse in this day and age for a football game to be decided by human error. As much improvement as there has been over the past decade plus, we should be much closer to this ideal than we currently are.