Still, pushback against this age of enhanced officiating has started. Some criticisms center on the degree of scrutiny; plays that once wouldn’t have been given a second thought are now subject to being pored over frame by frame. Others focus on a slowing of pace and the loss of some intangible element. Meg Rowley of Baseball Prospectus, in a recent piece on the increasing hair-splitting of replay in baseball, wrote, “We understood what replay was for: to right injustices. To overturn the big failures, not bog the game down in administrative law ... But the super slo-mo rendering of a foot coming off the bag is too much for our brains to handle.” Jay Caspian Kang of The New York Times Magazine, in his own essay on the drawbacks of replay, wrote about missing the old scapegoat: “Nobody wants to lose the edifying and necessary knowledge that in the aftermath of a crushing defeat there is always someone else to blame.”
Almost every argument for or against replay, or any other measure designed to produce a fairer sport, acknowledges a tradeoff. In exchange for a game played closer to the rules, the formula goes, we sacrifice pace or immediacy or peripheral charm. As leagues try to tighten more loose bolts, though, new questions have come up about the strategies’ ability to perform their assigned functions in the first place. The pursuit of a perfectly called game may not be merely inconvenient, but it may also be fundamentally impossible—and trying to get there may do more harm than good.
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In the second game of a recent NBA playoff game between the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, with the Thunder leading by one and inbounding the ball with seconds remaining, pandemonium struck. The stakes of the moment led to an avalanche of rule-breaking. San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili pressured Oklahoma City’s Dion Waiters more closely on the inbounds pass than permitted, Waiters responded by elbowing Ginobili out of the way, and even once the ball made it onto the court, shoves and stumbles were the currency of the play. The most slapstick moment came when a courtside San Antonio fan grabbed the arm of Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams, preventing him from cutting toward the rim. The sequence ended with the Spurs stealing the ball, trying a game-winning shot, and missing.
In the moments after the game, the lead official Ken Mauer expressed the same amazement as the fans, saying, “It’s a play we have never seen before, ever,” before admitting that there should have been a foul call against Waiters for throwing the elbow. The next day, however, when the NBA released its officiating reports for the game—a new practice this postseason and the latest vanguard in referee accountability—a whopping five violations on that final play were said to have gone unnoticed.
A few days after that game, the National Basketball Referees Association’s verified Twitter account posted a yes-or-no poll with the topic, “NBA basketball has suffered from too much reliance on reviews and second guessing calls.” If the poll seemed like a somewhat defensive response, it also examined the assumption that what are called improvements actually improve things. All the NBA’s measures had done in that situation, after all, was explicitly recognize a misstep, making for a more certified but no less stinging nuisance.