Just 1.3 seconds remained on the clock in the final game of the 2016 Division I men’s basketball tournament. The score was knotted at 74 when Villanova’s Kris Jenkins corralled a pass well outside the 3-point line, then delivered a signature moment in Men’s Final Four history.
After his shot ripped through the net, distinct bursts of sound punctuated the ensuing milliseconds. A piercing horn signified the game’s end. Fans erupted — roars from the Wildcats, groans from the contingent wearing Carolina blue. Then, four staccato explosions as air cannons released paper confetti from the rafters of NRG Stadium in Houston.
Bedlam — except at the scorer’s table, where the game’s three officials huddled. NCAA rules required the referees to answer two questions: Did Jenkins release the shot in time? And, if so, was there a fraction of a second remaining in which North Carolina could attempt to author its own miracle?
“They’re going to check the clock if there’s any time,” CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz said as the Villanova bench emptied and teammates piled on Jenkins while thousands of scraps of yellow and white paper fluttered toward the court. “And boy, they’re going to have a problem on their hands if they do.”
In the end, the confetti didn’t have to be swept aside to clear room for one more play. Officials emerged from the scorer’s table certain the basket was good and that the clock had expired when the ball was in flight. After a few pensive seconds, the Wildcats victory was complete.
Video review can deflate a thrilling moment. It can lengthen a game and disrupt its pace of play. Yet, vitally, it also leads to more accurate calls and fair officiating. It helps ensure the pain of a suspect call won’t linger.
This dichotomy is nothing new and is debated in arenas, coaches meetings, living rooms and especially within NCAA playing rules committees, where coaches and athletics administrators gather to try to chart the best course for their sports. So far, the quest for fairness has carried the day: Seventeen of the NCAA’s 24 sports stop competition while officials review replays, though some make the allowance only during postseason play.
But with video replay technology perpetually advancing and its ability to capture the truth having far surpassed the human eye’s, how much is too much? It is costly and nearly impossible to standardize. As schools and conferences try to keep pace with that technology and with each other, they must confront an emerging dilemma: Are we helping or hindering the games we are trying to improve?
Instant replay originated in the 1950s, when the Canadian Broadcast Corp. dabbled with it during live NHL broadcasts. A slow-motion replay was used for the first time in March 1962 during a boxing match between Benny Paret and Emile Griffith on ABC. Initially, its value was to enhance a broadcast by giving the viewer another look at a key play while analysts offered insight.
The NFL was the first major sports league to conduct video reviews to help the on-field officials get calls right. In 1986, the NFL instituted instant replay rules but used them only until 1991, when owners voted out instant replay because the system was too flawed.
In 1999, NFL owners brought back instant replay, a decision prompted partly by a controversial touchdown awarded to New York Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde late in the 1998 season. Instant replays showed the football didn’t cross the goal line, but the call stood because officials had no avenue to reverse it.
The late 1990s was also when video review for officials came to the NCAA. Rules committees allowed officials to use monitors to confirm or overturn calls in men’s and women’s basketball and men’s ice hockey. Early on, it was intended as a tool to correct obvious or egregious officiating mistakes.
Those trips to the monitors took place on screens with a much lower resolution than now exists. Today, high-definition televisions allow video to be enhanced to check whether the tip of a shoe is in or out of bounds, whether the blade of a skate is touching the blue line or in the air, or whether a fingernail touched a volleyball at the net. Every call is expected to have the correct outcome.
“It is apparent that instant replay is a double-edged sword,” says Jeff Hurd, chair of the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel and commissioner of the Western Athletic Conference. “It often corrects errors, but as times evolve, you see the effects on pace of play. There has been talk about limiting the amount of time on replays.”
Even today, with all the technological advancements, replay equipment operations don’t always go smoothly. Simply determining when the clock should start on the review can be challenging, with officials sometimes at the mercy of problems with a TV production truck, difficulty finding the play that needs to be reviewed or even an undertrained video operator.
“One of the issues we have is the umpires come to the table, and they say something like, ‘Show me the last penalty corner,’” says Steve Horgan, the NCAA field hockey rules interpreter. “The guy who works for the television crew says, ‘What’s a penalty corner?’ Things like that add to the time it takes to look at the play.”
Once video review entered the officiating world, expectations changed.
Coaches, players, fans and the media clamor for correct calls. But the cameras don’t always have the best angle to aid the officials who make the calls in real time. Sometimes the official has to search through several options. Games are delayed. Action ceases.
The final two minutes of a men’s or women’s college basketball game, for instance, are notorious for delays because more plays can be reviewed. Officials converge at the scorer’s table to review any number of questions: Is the time on the clock correct? Was a flagrant foul committed? Was the shot released before the shot clock expired? Was the shooter behind the 3-point arc? Combine the reviews with the game strategy of a trailing team fouling to stop the clock and get the ball back, and the end of college basketball games can test the patience of fans.
Yet no basketball official wants to face the possibility that the final score is somehow in question because of a timing issue.
“Excellence used to be the standard you would strive for, but now people expect perfection,” says J.D. Collins, the NCAA coordinator of officials for men’s basketball. “As long as we’re human, we’re not going to be perfect. That is a significant shift to go from excellence to perfect. In the NCAA tournament, our officials are correct 96 percent of the time. You can be right the whole game, but if you make a mistake in the last minute, you turn into a terrible official.”
NCAA football replay officials can stop the action after any play if they feel the outcome warrants further examination. Dean Blandino, the director of instant replay for College Football Officiating and formerly the NFL’s vice president of officiating, says he trains officials to focus on the protocols when they review a play. He hopes this advice helps focus the replay official’s attention in the proper space.
“If you follow the correct steps, then you are going to get to the desirable outcome 99 percent of the time,” Blandino says. “There are going to be things that are out of our control, and there are going to be some crazy plays that come up. It is about going through the proper steps every single play.”
The unreasonable expectation of perfection can lead to an argument that NCAA rules committees should curtail video replay and accept that an official is using the best judgment possible in that moment. Yet the reality is that one missed call of consequence leads to more appeals to use the available technology.
“Our football coordinator of officials told me that officiating is the only part of sports where you are expected to be perfect on the first day and only get better,” says Pat Britz, a member of the Playing Rules Oversight Panel and commissioner of the South Atlantic Conference. “It is like we are teaching the participants that it isn’t OK to fail. It’s OK to miss the last shot or the wide-open net. It’s OK to fumble at the goal line, but it isn’t OK for the official to miss a call. I don’t understand why that’s the case.”
One issue officials can’t control is what the TV producers are showing their audiences. The official may be looking at the same replay the broadcast crew is showing, but not always.
“People have access to video right away on the sidelines and in the stands, so that is the direction where we are going,” says Tom Abbott, the national coordinator of men’s lacrosse officials. “Sports are played by athletes and coached and officiated by former athletes. Everyone makes mistakes. Replay starts to compound itself, and more and more plays will need to be reviewed.”
Which, of course, leads to more game stoppages. Similar to men’s and women’s basketball, sports such as volleyball and wrestling present challenges because the officials must review video in close proximity to coaches and fans. Working in this atmosphere can be distracting, and the longer a review takes, the more anxiety levels can rise among the onlookers.
“In wrestling, there could be fans 5 feet from the table where you are looking at the monitor,” says Tim Shiels, the national coordinator of officials for the sport, which allows coaches to have one challenge per dual match and keep the challenge if it leads to overturning the original call. A team loses its right to challenge a call once it makes an unsuccessful challenge. “The coaches are always trying to influence the call. A lot of times at our national tournaments, we try to have someone with a big body or use an umbrella to block the fans’ view while the official is at the table looking at the monitor. It provides more privacy.”
Yet even with the high expectations for officials, Julie Voeck, a women’s volleyball official who has officiated NCAA matches for 25 years, said her sport’s Challenge Review System has helped the game. The coach’s challenge system has been used for three years, and Voeck was among those who were interested in seeing how effective it would be.
Women’s volleyball coaches are allowed three challenges per match regardless of the outcome of the challenges. They receive an additional challenge if the match goes to a fifth set.
It didn’t take long for Voeck to become a fan of the technology: On her first video review, she saw that she had missed a call.
“In volleyball, you are looking at small areas, and if you get too focused in on one of those areas, it’s possible that you might not see a touch on a play,” Voeck says. “I’ve changed to a wider focus on that type of play. It was very educational for me and has made me a much better official.”
Every advancement in video technology, of course, comes with questions: How much does it cost? Is the improvement worthwhile? How long until another upgrade will be needed again?
Consider the Southeastern Conference, which conducts instant replay reviews from its offices in Birmingham, Alabama. The SEC generated more than $600 million in revenues in the 2017-18 academic year, giving it the flexibility to devote resources to upgraded technology and the staff to operate it.
This season, for instance, baseball became the latest sport to allow coaches to challenge plays. And because almost every SEC league game is televised, the review system mirrors what Major League Baseball does — a process that can save a lot of time when executed correctly.
SEC baseball games even can benefit when the conference office isn’t making the final decision. Someone in the centralized location can inform the on-site official about which camera angles have the best look at the disputed play.
“We are doing it this way to maintain pace of play,” says Herb Vincent, the SEC associate commissioner of communications, who oversees baseball. “The replay official can begin to look at the play before the umpires even come to the headsets. Sometimes they can look at a play even before a coach decides to challenge the call on the field.”
Most conferences, of course, don’t have the luxury of a centralized video replay system. Steve Piotrowski, the NCAA secretary-rules editor for men’s and women’s ice hockey, does extensive video review training during the season and in the offseason for officials in the Big Ten Conference, for which he is also the coordinator of officials. It’s the best way to prepare them for all aspects of going to the monitor.
“One of the areas we focus on is the communication piece that happens post-review,” Piotrowski says. “We want our officials to articulate to the coaches about the decision that was made. It is important to correctly explain to them what the final ruling is.”
When a video rule is permanently added to a sport’s rules book, it is implemented on a permissible basis across all three divisions because some conferences may not be able to cover the expenses needed to conduct video review, don’t feel they have enough personnel to work the review system or don’t have venues that are compatible with the technology needed.
Some even decide the rule isn’t one they want to implement in their conference.
In February 2018, Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Commissioner Gary Karner drafted a resolution asking that video review in games be eliminated for all Division III regular-season and postseason games. Seventy-two percent of the Division III commissioners nationwide signed a letter Karner sent to the NCAA national office.
The document listed considerations such as budget, the inexperience of Division III in-game officials to handle video review and the inequities of the equipment from school to school or conference to conference.
The Playing Rules Oversight Panel reviewed the resolution Karner had prepared. But under NCAA bylaws, once a sports rules committee permanently adds a proposal to the rulebook, it is in effect for all three divisions.
Still, 28 of the 39 Division III commissioners wanted their feelings known about in-game video review.
“A lot of us are concerned about the proliferation of replay,” Karner says. “At the Division III level, it is seldom required. It may be required if you are hosting an NCAA championship in certain sports. When something becomes permissible, it puts pressure on you to do it. We all want the calls to be right, but unfortunately, we just don’t have enough technology to get different camera angles.”
Karner has been commissioner of the conference for 23 years and thinks officials have become more tentative making calls since video review has expanded throughout intercollegiate sports in recent years. He thinks Division III would be better served by focusing efforts and resources on recruiting, training and retaining officials than devoting more money to video review systems.
Overall, it is up to each of the rules committees to decide where video review is headed in NCAA sports.
Two years after Jenkins’ buzzer-beater, Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale sank a 3-point attempt as the clock expired to break a 58-58 tie with Mississippi State in the 2018 Division I Women’s Basketball Championship title game.
The initial celebration was somewhat stifled as the officials signaled for players on both teams to return to their benches so the play could be reviewed. The Notre Dame teammates embraced, all without air cannon blasts and confetti showers, while officials watched video.
Ogunbowale’s shot will go down as one of the most exciting finishes in NCAA women’s basketball history. Was it worthwhile for the officials to postpone the spontaneous celebration to check their own fallibility? That’s for future generations of playing rules committees to decide.
“Right now, we’re getting down to splitting hairs on some calls,” says Hurd, chair of the Playing Rules Oversight Panel. “The better the technology gets, the more susceptible we get trying to use it. I think video review is a good thing for college sports. But there is some fine-tuning that needs to be done.”