Replays are overused in professional sports

May 15, 2021 — by Howard Shu

Although there are some cases where they are acceptable, instant replaying often slows down the game and makes casual fans lose interest.

In the final minute of a tight game between the Golden State Warriors and the Portland Trail Blazers earlier this season, Warriors’ power forward Draymond Green drove to the basket, and collided with a Blazers’ point guard Damian Lillard as he made a layup. As a Warriors fan, I was ecstatic to see the team ready to take the win.

Then the referees got involved, dashing my moment of happiness. They called an offensive foul on Green and then the call went to replay. 

While the foul upset me, what annoyed me more was several minutes they spent dissecting the play on replay, disrupting the momentum of the game only to decide there was not enough evidence to overturn the original ruling.

Of course, this was a tough call and could have gone either way. In these tricky situations, replays from several different angles make the decision no easier. Even as an avid NBA fan who can sit through the lengthy reviewing process, I still get frustrated with the delays. The solution to this problem that has become common in all the major sports: Modify the coaches’ challenging system and speed up the decision-making time after instant replays.

These stops often expose a lot of gray areas when it comes to rulings. For example, in the NBA, officials sometimes spend several minutes looking at one play, trying to decide whether it’s a charge and an offensive foul or a blocking defensive foul. In the NFL, the same thing can occur with generic and loosely defined penalties like illegal contact.

In these situations, instant replays aren't very helpful because they’re largely nuanced judgment calls. 

This isn’t to say that instant replays should be completely eliminated. In fact, they are quite useful in situations where a player could be ejected from a game, especially in the case of technical fouls in the NBA.
All too often a star player gets thrown out of a game for two questionable technical foul calls. Replays should be used to analyze technical fouls because slowing down the game for a few minutes is worth it if it could prevent a player from being unrightfully ejected.

Replays should primarily be used in the last minute of games, especially when the score is close, which is often the case in most professional games. This would ensure correct calls and won’t lead to a loss of casual fans as the end of a tight game is the most exciting part. 

Additionally, instant replays should be used when coaches challenge a call, as this will often correct obvious mistakes by referees. 

To maximize the effectiveness of this process, the coaches’ challenge system should be modified in some leagues. In the NBA, the ability for coaches to challenge calls was introduced before the 2019-20 season; however, coaches are sometimes reluctant to challenge calls because of the loss of a timeout. This rule should be modified so teams don’t lose a timeout if the challenge is successful, just as in the NFL. 

On top of changing the challenge system, referees should have limited time to make decisions. Often when I’m watching games on television and the officials go into instant replay, it’s already clear what the correct call is.

Even so, it can often take a few minutes before the referees finish reviewing the video and announce the call. Referees should be given a two-minute time limit to review any necessary film and judge the accuracy of any given call. If they take longer, the play is most likely in a gray area for rulings, in which case it would be better to go forward with the initial ruling.

Instant replays in professional sports should only be used in situations where a player could be ejected, in the last minute of a game or if a coach challenges a call. This will make the number of replays more balanced, with enough to make most of the calls fair, but not so much that casual fans will stop watching games.

If fewer replays are used and faster decisions are made, the momentum of professional sports games can flow more smoothly and give fans what they are looking for: a thrilling game uninterrupted by referees staring at screens for minutes on end.