President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963. Four days later, Navy quarterback Roger Staubach was awarded the Heisman Trophy, and eight days later, the Army-Navy game was scheduled to be played. As the nation mourned, there was little doubt the game would be canceled.
But in 1963, years before the Super Bowl was invented, Army-Navy was America’s game. JFK was a Navy man, and he loved football — which is why Jacqueline Kennedy and other family members insisted the game be played. And so it was, on Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day.
At the time, Tony Verna was a 29-year-old director at CBS Sports. He had invented a tape-looping contraption that weighed more than 1,000 pounds, and he was itching to give it a try. He put the machine in a truck and parked it at Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia, hooked everything up, crossed his fingers and waited for Staubach to scramble. The contraption didn’t cooperate, not at first.
Then, in the fourth quarter, quarterback Rollie Stichweh scored to get Army to within a touchdown of Navy and set up a furious finish. Verna pressed some buttons, or pulled some levers, or whatever. The tape-looping contraption worked this time. Stichweh’s touchdown was reshown to a national television audience as play-by-play man Lindsey Nelson announced: “This is not live! Ladies and gentlemen, Army has not scored again.”
Instant replay was born.
It made the NFL watchable on television, which is to say that it made the NFL. A half-century later, its power is truly awesome. Invented by man to help mankind, instant replay has turned into a “getting the call right” monster, capable of devouring our sports-television experience on a nightly basis.
Tuesday night, the last five seconds of the Purdue-Michigan basketball game took a half hour, and the outcome hinged on the perceived fact that a Michigan player had two fingers on the basketball after it was slapped out of his hands and before it went out of bounds, based on two frames of super-slo-mo replay.
That is just one example from one time slot on one channel on one night of the year. You could pause for five seconds and come up with 10 more examples for this year, and it’s not even mid-January. How many times have you jumped from your couch, pointed at the screen and yelled, “Come on, that’s a catch.”
What is a catch anymore?
ESPN SportsCenter anchor John Buccigross was among those who jumped up when an offsides call rubbed out a game-tying goal by the Edmonton Oilers in Nashville on Tuesday night. Replay showed the skate was in the air over the blue line. No goal.
“Get rid of the reviews and the rules the fans hate, and keep the ones they like,” said Buccigross, whose job description includes reviewing reviews for a replay show.
“It’s not going away. Get ready for robotic strike zones in baseball. It’s coming.”
The use of instant replay as an aid for umpires, referees, et al., began with good intentions — to correct awful mistakes and be clear on scoring matters. Now, everything is replayed. I think. I’m still not square on what is reviewable and/or not reviewable in any given sport. Also, if there’s no conclusive evidence, does that mean the call on the field was right or wrong? And if a coach doesn’t have another challenge, are all subsequent calls correct?
(Cue: Monty Python’s Philosopher Football.)
The best thing to do would be to get rid of all video review, which has created two problems for every one problem it has solved. Pass the torch to an older generation, and simply live with human infallibility, and radio.