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Get it right: Fans want more instant-replay reviews

Umpire Jim Joyce wipes tears during the exchange

Umpire Jim Joyce wipes tears during the exchange of lineup cards before the Cleveland Indians-Detroit Tigers game. (June 3, 2010) Photo Credit: AP Photo/Paul Sancya

As a perfect example of fans' demand for absolute justice in sports, the Armando Galarraga/Jim Joyce episode may not be as flawless as several hallucinatory officiating decisions during soccer's World Cup or Sunday's mirage "out" that saved the Mets from defeat in San Francisco. Taken together, those cases of modern technology again exposing human failings have predictably fueled a new round of calls for more instant replay.

The day after Joyce's erroneous "safe" call cost the Tigers' Galarraga a perfect game June 2, a USA Today/Gallup poll found 78 percent of Americans in favor of expanding baseball's use of replay reviews. (Another poll appearing on the National Public Radio website put the pro-replay percentage at 84.)

Even before some obvious World Cup officiating goofs, Nielsen polling in 55 nations put the percentage of replay proponents at 65 for the most high-profile sport not employing official reviews. Whereupon soccer referees missed a clear English goal against Germany and were guilty of botched offside calls in at least two other games.

Then umpire Phil Cuzzi's eyes-wide-shut "out" signal as the Giants' Travis Ishikawa slid home with the apparent winning run in the ninth inning Sunday - even Mets catcher Henry Blanco acknowledged that Ishikawa was safe - cued more loud shrieks for video assistance.

Selig, Blatter: All is well

The public outcry clearly belies baseball commissioner Bud Selig's claim, during a conference call this month, that "quite frankly, there is little appetite for more instant replay." And it also clashes with past insistence by Sepp Blatter, president of soccer's governing body, FIFA, that the human element, manifested in blown calls, is good for stirring lively fan discussion. (Blatter has backed off that argument slightly.)

To Mike Pereira, just retired from overseeing NFL officials, "people won't be happy" without more input, in all sports, from the constantly upgraded replay gadgetry. Television viewers are too accustomed to what can be seen with multiple cameras and slow-motion magic. Furthermore, Pereira said in a telephone interview, referees themselves "want to have every tool to be right; they don't want to leave the field having made a mistake.

"It only makes sense to see if anything can be done within each sport, to use the technology to try to make sure people don't end up talking about officiating instead of the game. I don't care what Sepp Blatter said, if people are talking about the controversy, that's not good for your sport."

Camera never blinks

Still, even experts well versed in replay's capabilities - and fully aware of overwhelming spectator insistence on ridding all sports of bad calls - offer caveats against a brave new world of entirely robotic umpiring and refereeing. What bedazzles the fan about instant replay also bedevils sports authorities on several levels, beyond just "judgment calls." Often, for good reason.

Dr. Kevin Gee, University of Houston optometrist and founder of the Sports Vision Performance Center at the school, cautions that video technology already has reached the point of replacing the human eye in redefining what actually happened on the field of play.

"When you slow things down," Gee said, "you have the aspect of dynamic acuity, where you have to watch something in motion and you have a cognitive decision to make: Is the ball fair or foul, or is he in front of the line of scrimmage or not? That's a cognitive process. Is the eye able to see it, and then is the brain able to process it? But now that I can stop it for you, and show it to you in segmented milliseconds, is the brain able to spit that back out accurately?"

There becomes the matter of what is accurate in real time. And, with all those high-def, super slow-motion cameras sitting over officials' shoulders (and maybe getting into officials' heads).

"My biggest thing now," Gee said, "is you can actually see officials making a call based on their instinct of what they think will happen - almost signaling before it's happened, anticipating before the actual play is over."

That, Gee believes, is what happened to Jim Joyce, who apologized for bollixing his exceptionally quick call that brought Galarraga's unusually gracious acceptance but general fan outrage - an anger that Galarraga's "perfect" game was ruined by Joyce's imperfection.

"I do think," Pereira said, "that officials are held to a higher standard than players" in terms of making mistakes.

Xavier University psychology professor Christian End, who studies fan behavior, agreed that "replay has fostered unrealistic expectations of officials. The fact of the matter is that humans have limitations. And, I would guess, so do robots. I think fans demand perfection - and replay shows them that goal has not been achieved - instead of perfection in the context of human limitations."

End further cited the "availability heuristic," a phenomenon in which people predict the frequency of an event based on examples easily brought to mind. Because fans remember vivid cases of replays contradicting officials' calls, rather than the far larger number of correct calls confirmed by replay, it "will bias their estimations of the frequency in which officials make mistakes," End wrote in an e-mail to Newsday.

"That being stated, sometimes calls are missed and they can't be chalked up to human limitations," he said. "They were just blown calls. Again, those are going to be the mistakes that are remembered, not the ones that only can be seen when the camera is slowed down frame by frame to 1/1,000th of real time."

Quest for perfection

So the search for the ideal system goes on. Gee's vision center specializes in eye-training exercises to improve tracking, visual memory, peripheral vision and reaction time, and he has approached sports officials about his services "a few times, [but] it's a very tight circle."

Paul Hawkins, the British inventor of tennis' successful "Hawk-Eye" replay system, this month addressed an angry open letter to Blatter, shooting down the FIFA president's expressed doubts about the do-ability of accurate soccer replay.

Recommendations of placing computer chips in balls and pucks, to track goal-scoring more accurately, also have been suggested. "In our sport," football's Pereira said, "you could put a chip in the ball, but the problem would be, 'Did he cross the goal before he was down?' You'd have to put a chip in his elbow and knee, too . . ."

Meanwhile, the judges are out there in TV land, expecting something beyond a reasonable doubt.

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