Umpirical Infallibility

The baseball season is over. The Rangers’ record? 75-87. Disappointing, but not surprising, I would say. Better than one would have expected earlier in the season, at least. We were 23-42 on June 13. We actually had a winning record since that point in the season. But going 19 games below .500 a bit more than two months into the season is going to completely destroy any chances of, well, doing anything that season. On a side note, Michael Young managed to pull his average up to .315 (the highest on the team!) after going something like .192 for the first month. There’s a reason he’s my favorite current Ranger.

Anyway, the sports calendar presses onward, and now it’s football season. I really couldn’t care less. It is kind of cool that the best-known football team in the NFL is from here (the Cowboys), and it’s good for local morale that they’ve started the season 4-0 or something like that, but I just don’t like football. I watched the second half of the game against the Rams on Sunday for lack of anything better to do, and I was just kind of bored.

I also remembered one of the many reasons I don’t like football – ‘challenges’ and instant replay. For those not familiar with the sport: if the coach thinks a call went the wrong way against his team, he can throw out a challenge flag and the referees are obliged to watch the play again on these little TVs they have on the sidelines. If the refs decide it was a bad call, it gets reversed. If they decide it was called correctly, they charge the team that wasted 3 minutes of everybody’s time a timeout (in football, each team has something like 3 timeouts per half… I really don’t know exactly how it works). Each team can only make two challenges per game, though if they both result in a changed call they get a third challenge. You can’t make challenges in the last two minutes of a game.

Now, let’s assume that it makes sense that coaches should be able to challenge calls made on the field. Do any of the restrictions put on them make any sense? Well, the “only 2 challenges unless both are right and then you get at third” obviously makes no sense. If you accept that coaches should be able to protest bad calls, why can they only protest a certain number per game? Perhaps they should be penalized for frivolous challenges, but why should they be limited in the number of successful challenges be made? The same for the “last two minutes of a game” rule. The purpose of that rule is to make the end of games go quicker. But it just makes no logical sense that you wouldn’t be able to challenge at that point if the call was bad.

And what’s the deal with it using up a timeout if the call is frivolous? Football is a timed game (another reason I dislike it), so you have to penalize people for wasting time intentionally. But it just seems strange to me that you’d be penalized a time-out for frivolous challenges. I suppose this stems from my dislike of the entire system of “punishment” in football (and basketball and hockey and… well, the only sport other than baseball that gets it right is soccer). Unsportsmanlike conduct? 15 yard penalty! False start? 5 yards! And what about basketball? Technical foul? A free throw for the other team! Essentially, you make actions that don’t have to do with the game, but rather with player conduct, and punish them in ways that affect the result of the game itself. I much prefer the baseball method – if a player or coach does something so egregious as to merit punishment, eject them from the game. Otherwise, don’t do anything.

But my fundamental problem with instant replay hasn’t even been mentioned yet. It is the basic assumption that coaches should be allowed to challenge the referees’ calls while the game is still progressing. Baseball says, essentially, that for the purposes of the game the umpires are infallible. That’s not actually the case, but it is necessary to preserve the illusion, otherwise all respect for the umpires is lost. It turns from a sporting event into a contest of who can best convince the umpire to change his decision in order to favor their team. If an umpire makes a bad call, too bad. After the game is over, the umpire can be corrected for his error, but during the game the umpire’s word is law. (There’s actually 4 umpires, and the head umpire’s word is law – he can overrule the word of the other umpires.) This ensures that the game progresses smoothly, that there’s no stopping in mid-game to argue over the rules of the game, and that it’s a contest of athleticism and strategy rather than a contest of persuasion.

The principle can actually be extended to games other than sporting events. It is essentially that you need to decide before the game who is in charge of the rules and have that person, and only that person, adjudicate disputes. Otherwise you spend a bunch of time arguing over the nature of the rules and how to apply them in this or that situation. That can be fun as well, but it’s a different kind of fun. And if you’re trying to play an established type of game (baseball, soccer, Diplomacy, whatever), the former almost always works best. The latter is more for when making up a game among friends (as I and my brothers often do).


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