Upon further review: Instant replay and sports

Curator's Note

In October of 2013, The Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee created a minor media fracas when he insinuated that world #1 Tiger Woods had become “cavalier” with the rules. Chamblee’s evidence? Woods’ four rules’ violations during the 2013 golf season, all of which were immortalized on video. Many critics would argue that because of Woods’ media draw, every shot he hits is on camera (unlike his fellow 120+ competitors each week) and thus he is subject to biased coverage and scrutiny. The goal of this short essay is to highlight some “controversy” that is “produced” (or induced) by the advent of instant replay. That is, the ability to not have a fuzzy recollection of what happened, but to have a mediated, multi-angle evidentiary collage of the “facts.” The review of which not only impacts game play, but the viewers’ understanding of the rules, their application and the need to “get it right.”

During week 3 of the NFL 2012 season, the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers ended (sort of) on a controversial call in the end zone which “ended” the game ... but “upon further review” the “overwhelming video evidence” clarified the call on field. The “controversy” was magnified by the NFL’s use of replacement referees officiating the game due to a labor strike with the usual NFL referees. After players had done post-game interviews, and left the field, the instant replay officiating team required them to resume play and decide the game. Again.

Of note here is that the NFL (like the other major American sports) is continuously monitoring play from a variety of cameras, angles and producers’ eyes. The golf example highlights that viewers can impact play by “calling in” possible rules’ violations captured on camera, and players are subject to disqualification if rules have been violated and not accounted for on their scorecards. The NFL is currently considered “centralizing” its review process, which would remove the in-stadium/on-sight (and thus potentially “emotional”) process and locate ALL reviews to a central base of operations and dedicated production/review team.  Stay tuned as this process is under further review.


This exciting example (and your remarks) reminded me that ‘controversy’ is, of course, a structural and even constitutive aspect of sports. As your piece shows, this is not only due to the partisanship that comes with sport but it is also due to the tension between the endeavors to guarantee a ‘level playing field’ on the one hand and the highly mediated and thus unequal visibility of each performance on the other hand. The Tiger Wood example highlights how the hierarchies of sports (stars, leagues etc.) attract unequal attention. The Wikipedia page on the ‘Packers–Seahawks officiating controversy’ (it exists!) also taught me the difference between reviewable and non reviewable aspects of the game (and that the controversy included one on NFL’s referee lockout). For me, the clip additionally shows the multiplication of perspectives and the tension between evidence and interpretation: TV produces multiple images of the situation, it includes the perspectives of coaches and athletes, reads the faces and gestures of the referees, reminds us of the exact wording of the rule pertinent for this situation; finally (also highly characteristic for sport), it uses a somewhat paradoxical mix of superlatives (“the most bizarre sequence you’ll ever see”) and relativizing historical comparisons (”this reminds me of”).

To echo Markus' great observation, I too am struck by sport controversy's "structural" and aesthetic dimensions. Indeed, I am reminded of the part of Harper's great essay on the production of narrative in golf that explains the many representational constraints The Masters places on CBS. As a lifelong Seahawks fan, though, I have to say that call seems totally reasonable :)

Thanks for the kind words and sharp observations. Instant replay is only a portion of a larger TV production discourse with regard to "game play" both on field (for players and coaches), and off (for viewers at home). In the future, I'd like to explore the nature of the in-stadium screens that provide "feedback" for players during the game, be it "instant replay" of the plays they are part of, or more pointedly, when they see footage of on-field play as it occurs. A particularly salient example of this took place during this year's Super Bowl (Travis, go 'Hawks!) as Percy Harvin sprinted down the sideline and looked to the in-stadium live camera feed (rather than over his shoulder) for evidence of the defense closing in. Lots of good work to be done with televised sports ... Thanks!

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