The controversy over an NFL touchdown pass that wasn't has again highlighted our relationship with our technology.
SAN FRANCISCO -- There was a lesson among those falling bodies in the
end zone in Seattle on Monday night (Sept. 24), on the Hail Mary touchdown pass
But before we get to the lesson, let's roll the tape: Two NFL teams, the Green Bay Packers and
the Seattle Seahawks battled down to the last play of the game. In
desperation, the Seattle quarterback heaved a long pass--a "Hail
Mary"-- into the end zone toward a single Seahawks receiver covered
closely by at least five Packers defenders.
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The receiver, Golden Tate (Golden? Really?) shoved one defender in
the back (which is a illegal) just before leaping to catch the ball
(video below) and then wrestled for the ball with another defender,
M.D. Jennings. One referee signaled a touchdown; another one
appeared to signal that the ball was intercepted by Jennings.
Packers fans were howling for a pass-interference call, which would
have given their team the win.
The officials then looked to the replay booth, where all the
technology sits, to settle the call on the field. Replay officials
confirmed--to the chagrin of virtually sentient being in America,
Seahawks fans included--that there was no pass interference, that Tate had achieved "simultaneous possession" of the ball and that
had Seattle scored the winning touchdown.
All hell (and we mean all hell) broke loose on
the field, on Twitter and on the NFL phone bank, where reportedly
70,000 phone messages were left immediately after the call. Bookies
claim a half a billion dollars changed hands on that one play.
All this despite replay technology that clearly showed the pass interference. The situation is all the more controversial because the
league is using replacement referees this season because of a
dispute with the referees' union.
Replay technology was first introduced in the mid-1950s and has been
used in the NFL and other sports for decades. The technology
has moved from film, to analog disk storage and to today's HD
cameras and high-capacity digital storage and instant playback.
The speed of NFL games is frequently beyond human comprehension, so fast that the human eye can't always comprehend
infractions. The replay cameras don't blink. When the technology doesn't settle the issue, the referees' ruling on the field stands.
As technology evolves, however, it won't matter. The reason is that no matter
how granular or high speed or sensitive the technology, it still takes a
competent human being to use it and interpret the data properly.
This comes as little solace to Packers' fans, but it's worth
remembering in an age when we deploy astonishing
technology to improve our world but often dismiss what it tells us.
With the availability and quality of current replay technology I would not be surprised to see the head referee position move to the monitor banks. Refs on the ground act as eyes, ears, and enforcement narrowing down the global field of view that the cameras have. All calls then come down from "On High", with review as needed.
On ground refs submit calls to the head ref, play is reviewed as needed, official call is made by head ref/review team. With the speed of technology, this could be almost as fast as current live reffing, and (usually) more reliable.
The objective of a referee is to apply the rules of the game properly. The problem is that when replay review was permitted, the *scope* of review was *restricted* in order to maintain the importance of the officials on the ground live, as if there were no video available (like the typical high school or college game). Otherwise *everything* could be done remotely (at the NFL level) and there would be no need for officials in the midst of the action.
I can certainly see this interpreted as a case of human action not keeping up with available technology.
In my mind, the true objective of a referee is not to avoid second guessing a fellow ref. The true objective is to ensure a fair game. I may be ignorantly idealistic in thinking that, but not allowing calls to be reviews strikes me as being quite similar to the corporate version: "I don't know why we do it that way, but we always have."
A few additions to the record. According to what the two ESPN idiots (Tirico & Gruden) were saying... (OK, they're idiots, but they seem to know the rules better than the replacement refs.) According to T&G, once a ref has signaled a touchdown, even if another ref disagreed, it's a touchdown. This can be overruled by a conference among the officials on the field, but the officials on the field did not even THINK about conferring. Apparently, it is up to the ref signalling the touchdown to determine the issue of "simultaneous possession." I'm not sure if this is true, but according to T&G, possession was not decided by the replay officials. According to T&G, the ONLY issue they were allowed to decide, since the touchdown call was irrevocable, was whether the player scoring the phantom "touchdown" (Golden Tate) was in bounds when he pretended to "catch" the ball. Admittedly, all these issues are extremely muddy. Two things are more certain: 1) If a field official MISSES an act of pass interference call, even one as blatant and criminal as Golden Tate's Eternal Moment of Shame, the replay officials cannot correct this gross injustice. Penalty calls (and non-calls) are, by rule, not reviewable -- and probably should nt be. 2) M.D. Jennings caught the ball.
One other sidelight: The official, Lance Easley, who blew the call and became a laughingstock for the rest of his worthless life, was -- before his elevation to Monday Night Football, a high school ref. Shades of Eddie the Eagle!