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Pragmatism and instant replay

I'm not much of a sports fan -- now that I have no marching band to play in, this year's Super Bowl was the first sporting event I watched in three to five years (depending on how you count the bits of Rugby League I sat through while trying to bond with my housemate/landlord in Australia). But Hugo Schwyzer's recent expression of dislike for instant replay (or perhaps more exactly, my reaction to it) touched on some of the philosophical hobbyhorses that lie behind much of my thinking recently.

Schwyzer's argument against instant replay is that bad calls are an important part of the sports experience. Instant replay proponents -- of which I would, I suppose, count myself -- want perfect refereeing. The refs are there to make sure the rules are properly applied, so we can watch two teams duke it out within those parameters. So anything that improves the quality of refereeing is a good thing, because it makes sure the game is played properly. Schwyzer, on the other hand, sees dealing with bad calls -- including blown calls that change the outcome of the game -- as a valuable part of sporting.

The question that came to mind for me about Schwyzer's position is: where do you draw the line? It's easy for replay proponents to call for maximizing the accuracy of officiating. But if you value some fallibility, how do you decide how much is enough? It seems suspicious that the optimal quantity of bad calls would be that which is produced by the best human referees acting without external technological aids. Why not shift the balance toward fewer bad calls by allowing instant replay if the cameras are grainy and positioned at bad angles? Why not increase the amount of bad calls by hiring worse refs or impairing them in some way?

A more defensible rationale for drawing the line precisely at banning instant replay would be to see the refs as a third team of athletes. In addition to admiring the skills of the players at moving or stopping the ball, we admire the skills of the refs at getting calls right in the tumult of the game. On this rationale, introducing instant replay is like giving the quarterback a cannon that can hurl the ball with more speed and accuracy than his unaided arm -- it defeats the purpose, since we're watching the game to see people do certain activities, not simply to see those activities get done. This rationale doesn't incorporate Schwyzer's relish of chewing over the feeling of having been wronged by the refs. But perhaps in combination with valuing bad calls as such, it can help justify drawing the line where it's drawn in the "no instant replay" position.

Even this resolution is somewhat unstable, though, because it raises the question of what things count as using the players (and refs') natural capabilities, and what things count as extraneous technological enhancements. Common sense assures us this is an easy line to draw -- but in reality it's highly questionable, especially if you want to try to draw the line without assuming a single model of what a "normal" human capacity is. The line that separates the self from the environment is not a Platonic reality but rather a pragmatic, variable tool. Things get even stickier when you realize that successful operation of a technological enhancement is itself a skill that can be admired -- hence we have both javelin and archery events (and outside of sports, both singers and pianists).

This seems like a good opportunity to apply the pragmatist test -- ask why you want to make the distinction in the first place, and that will tell you what criteria you should use to do it. But at this point we're so deep in the weeds, and so beyond my own passing understanding of sports, for me to know how to begin to answer.


Blogger The Eclectic Cleric said...

American Football, especially at the professional level, is the most over-planned, over-coached, and over-officiated "game" I know of. It is really more a celebration of pure competition rather than an athletic contest per se; "violence interrupted by committee meetings" as one commentator once described it, or pure strategy combined with the challenge of execution. So much of the "game" hinges on things like player personnel decisions (made YEARS in advance), who is healthy and who is injured, who has the better "game plan," and who makes the fewest mistakes. And yet, ironically, the game only gets interesting when the players are compelled to step outside the game plan and take some risks -- to throw the ball down field, move to a no-huddle "hurry-up" offense, or perhaps go for a "gadget" play like a fake kick or a half-back pass.

But back to Instant Replay. Instant Replay is the product of Football as Spectacle: there are cameras EVERYWHERE at a typical NFL contest, including ones invented to duplicate perspectives originally created for video games. Television revenue likewise drives the league, which is why these games seem to last forever. With seven officials (plus the "chain gang," the scoreboard operator, and a "replay" official) it takes as many people to officiate the game as it does to field a team, which seems a little bizarre to me. And since it really is about competition rather than performance, why SHOULDN'T there be a right to appeal, which of course has now been integrated into the competitive flow of the game itself?

Oh, and have I mentioned the gambling angle yet?

OK, so I guess it's obvious that I'm not that great a fan of the NFL... and it's not just because I have to compete with them for people's attention on Sunday morning, or that someone like Tom Brady can make millions of dollars for standing around on the sidelines holding a clipboard, while someone like me (with four graduate degrees)....

Instant Replay is stupid. But professional football is also stupid. They deserve each other. And it's really only the folks in Las Vegas who care....

2:54 PM  

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