Why football fans are hypocrites: Entertainment vs Integrity (and why I despise instant replay)

Instant replay is the worst thing that ever happened to sports, and nowhere is this more evident than in football. And those of you who enjoy the NFL for its entertainment value and, meanwhile, believe that instant replay has improved the integrity of the game are hypocrites.

There, I said it.

Now, here’s why.

There are two very different sides to sports that need to be held in balance in order to present a game that is worth our watching and debating. First, the game needs to be entertaining; it doesn’t matter how great the athletes are if a sport is completely unwatchable. And second, there needs to be some integrity in determining who is better at the game. Casino slots may well be entertaining but nobody’s going to pretend that the winner of a slot machine game has some prodigious slot skills.

           In essence, the more random a game is the less integrity there is and the more the entertainment has to make up for the fact that we cannot claim that player A is demonstrably better than player B or team C is better than team D. Nowhere is this more evident than in professional poker where there are great players and good players and bad players, but the luck factor is so high that in a large tournament (like the World Series of Poker) even the great players are unlikely to be around for very long. The entertainment level of poker needs to be awfully high to make up for the lack of accuracy in determining who is the best player in a given tournament.

The polar opposite of this is a double round robin chess tournament where all the info is in play. Everybody plays everybody with each color and the best player will emerge almost always because of the nature of the tournament and the nature of the game being player, even if the win is only by a minute factor. There is a ton of accuracy in this format but the entertainment factor is negligible (and this is coming from a chess master). The same thing can be said for the English Premier League which does not have playoffs. Why? Because playoffs diminish the accuracy of determining the best team each year, while a strict double round robin format allows the best teams to emerge over the course of a long season. The English have determined (for better or worse) that the integrity of crowning the best team as champion outweighs the entertainment of a playoff.

Here’s where this matters for the NFL and instant replay. The NFL is a league all about entertainment. The powers-that-be could not care less about whether the “best” team is the team that wins at the end of the year. In fact, because there’s so much parity, there are probably around eight best teams and any of them could be the big winner. That’s entertaining, but it sure as hell isn’t about integrity or accuracy. Two teams that are relatively equal will have hugely disparate seeds at the end of the season due to myriad factors involving scheduling. One of those teams may then get home-field advantage in the playoffs and, because of that small advantage, they often convert that into a Super Bowl win. Conversely, a six seed that barely squeaks into the playoffs may fight back to go on a roll and take home the big prize. That’s entertainment!

It just has nothing to do with crowning the best team.

And this is why the NFL’s growing dependence on instant replay is a strange marriage. Why pick this one area of the game to be incredibly, ultra-specific about what is true and accurate when the entire season is wildly tilted by innumerable factors that are far easier to control? This is a league that understands entertainment through and through. People pay outrageous (read: stupid) prices to go to games. They lobby their state legislators for terrible new stadium deals (thanks Vikings fans!). They are obsessed with their teams in completely unhealthy ways. And here is the league putting in replay rule after replay rule to make sure that the game is called “right.” On the surface this seems like a way of appeasing fan bases who are concerned with the game’s integrity, but in practice it’s a philosophical mess. And it’s part of why I don’t really care much for football anymore.

Nobody knows the rules of the game anymore. Seriously, you think I’m joking, but I’m not. Even coaches do not know when to challenge and when not to. We need interpreters to tell us what a catch is and what a catch is not. Mike Pereira’s entire job is to discern minute points of calls as defined by a rule book that soon will resemble our state constitution. It’s flatly out of control, and all of it stems from this need to define every little instant of the game in terms of some rule or another. There is no room for interpretation; no gray area; nothing left to discern but the laws of the game, which frankly kills the entertainment value for me.

Now, what looks for all the world like a catch (say, Calvin Johnson’s week 1 TD vs the Vikings) is not a catch because a catch is defined by an obscene amount of whacky criteria. No longer is a catch just a catch. Now it is broken down into movements and pirouettes and various little, split second, definitions of what it means to catch a ball. And somehow we have bought into the idea that this is for the integrity of the game.

I’m sorry, but the games are already too long. There’s already not enough action. There’s something like 8 minutes of actual game-play during a 60-minute game that actually takes 200-ish minutes to complete. That’s outrageous. And one simple culprit is instant replay.

People mock the “human element” as if it is the worst copout in history. On some level they’re right. I don’t like to see a perfect game ruined by a bad call anymore than anybody else, but it happened; live with it. The alternative is opening up Pandora’s box to challenges in the first inning of a 0-0 spring training game. And don’t think this won’t someday happen. Sometimes life isn’t fair. Sometimes a bad call is just a bad call. Imagine how many bad calls there were back in the 1960s and nobody knew about it. They just became rumors…

I’m not arguing we go back to those days. We have the technology, so somebody’s going to persuade the powers-that-be to use it. I’m just saying that we’re all hypocrites for concerning ourselves with it. I hate replay. It’s part of the reason I’m having trouble caring at all about football. But hey, I’m just one person. My opinion really doesn’t matter for much. I just wonder if there won’t come a time when the wave of technological advancement crests and more people find themselves with me, disenchanted and sick of the tedium.

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