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Thursday, May 31, 2012

NBA video dispute mechanism: a proposal

A proposal: The NBA should utilize a video replay dispute mechanism, similar to that used in the sport of cricket. Umpires are human, and make mistakes. Sometimes these mistakes can change the outcome of games. Video replay 'call challenges' would help to correct for such mistakes, making for happier coaches and players, happier fans, and ultimately, less guilty referees. 

The current situation: An unnecessary compromise for human error

In the 2nd quarter of Game 3 of the 2012 NBA Western Conference Finals, the umpires made a bad call. James Harden was called for an offensive foul, when replays clearly showed that the defensive player, Gary Neal, was not set when contact was made. Because he displayed (rightful) outrage, Kevin Durant was called for a technical foul. This, during a huge surge for the Thunder. What did the refs do, knowing full well that they made a mistake? The next play down, they called Splitter for a convenient off-the-ball offensive foul (I didn't see any replays, but commentator Reggie Miller accurately alluded to the subjectivity involved when he said "Funny how these calls tend to even their way out"). Additionally, Harden had calls go his way the next two times he attacked the basket. Fair? Perhaps, but only in an "eye for an eye" sort of way. Instead of Durant receiving a technical (he could have challenged the call legally) or Splitter being given a questionably soft foul to make up for the mistake on Harden's initial offensive foul call (hardly fair to him), a video replay dispute mechanism could have led to the call being changed rightfully. 

How would a video challenge mechanism work? 

As in international test match cricket, each team would be given two 'challenges' per game. If they use the challenge correctly (eg: OKC challenges the Harden offensive foul call), then they retain the challenge. If they used it incorrectly (eg: OKC challenges the Harden call, but replays show that Neal was in fact in correct position), then they would have used up that challenge, leaving only one remaining. After using up both challenges, a team can no longer challenge the call. This '3rd umpire', as it's known in cricket, has greatly helped to reduce the chance of critical glaring mistakes--that umpires will inevitably make--unfairly shaping the outcome of the game. It has not, as some might imagine, reduced the respect and value of the umpires, nor called into question their authority. It has merely augmented their decision-making process with that of a video technology-aided additional umpire. It's not that hard to adopt: the NBA already reviews tape on last second shot clock situations. As I understand it, the current rules hold that only referees may choose to review video tape; teams may not challenge referees calls. 

What problems would this raise? 

1. Loss of flow: Indeed, video replays take time, and this would undoubtedly interrupt the flow of the game at some level. However, a number of common controversial calls (charges, last touch possessions) could often be resolved within a few immediate replays. I estimate a review time of less than thirty seconds. For critical calls, I think this critical function is well worth the loss of time. 

2. Overuse and abuse by teams: Some might fear that teams will abuse use of this mechanism. By limiting its usage to two wrongful usages per game, teams will learn to only question calls that they are confident were called incorrectly. 

3. Remaining grey area: Not all close calls will be easily clarified through video replay. In the case that video does not help to clarify the call sufficiently, the original call should stay, and the challenging team would lose that usage. Only clearly incorrect calls would be overturned, thus retaining the general authority of the courtside referee. This has been the way cricket balances out the grey area on particularly close calls, and with great success.  

Conclusion: The game must evolve - introduce video dispute mechanisms to the NBA! 

Yes, it's a well-known fact that professional basketball is a difficult game to fairly adjudicate. Yes, there are lots of calls that the refs must make judgment calls on whether or not to call. But for highly controversial calls--which may unfairly change the outcome of games--the NBA should introduce a video dispute call challenge mechanism. The technology exists. Successful industry precedents exist. Now all that's required is the will.

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