Up 30–14, Yale football quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 took the snap on third-and-goal at the two. He shuffled left, thought twice and scrambled out of the pocket to the right. He hurled a pass on the run that whizzed just above the outstretched hand of a defender and within diving reach of streaking tight end Jaeden Graham ’18. The receiver reeled in the pass, dragging his left foot as he flew out of bounds. Or did he? The referees ruled that Graham had failed to establish contact with the ground — no catch was the call.
Had Graham scored, the touchdown would have shut the door on a chance for Dartmouth to mount a comeback; instead, Yale settled for three points and left the door open. Dartmouth came back to win 28–27.
“Had there only been replay!” “Jaeden’s toes would have been validated!” “We would still be undefeated!” Or, if you’re a football fan from Philadelphia, where I grew up: “Those refs are f—— idiots.”
The cries for instant replay surrounding a deciding play in a dramatic game are not only expected, but understandable. The frustration that’s vented, the vitriol that’s poured — within reason, Philly — are a natural consequence of a botched call. Such reactions are human.
But so too are the refs. And, in many ways, it’s the human aspect that lends sports their particular intrigue.
Human error can be catastrophic. When we watched the final pitches of Armando Galarraga’s game in 2010, we glimpsed something more than human: a bid for perfection. Like his teammates who began running in from the outfield, we celebrated when the final hitter, the 27th up and the 27th down, was out. And we were heartbroken when we, like the announcers, realized that umpire Jim Joyce had blown it, calling the runner safe. Like the fans in the stands, we stood there bewildered.
But that night and the following day, we saw something maybe more profound than the unattainable, than perfection: grace amid shock, apology following error and atonement upon forgiveness. Unlike Galarraga, we might not have let kindness prevail. Unlike Joyce, we might not have admitted our mistake immediately. Unlike both men, we would not have shaken hands just a day later, without malice and with only kindness in our hearts.
I can barely remember Dallas Braden’s perfect game; I will never forget Galarraga’s near-perfect game. I can’t picture the umpire’s final call in the former; I will forever recall the image of Joyce’s tears in the latter. Human error etched that moment into sports history.
It is these amazing moments of humanity that make sports worth watching. It is the pride that swells in the chest of an Olympian on the podium as her national anthem roars, the humility in a tennis player lobbing her opponent overheads in warmups before the match and the sportsmanship displayed in swapping jerseys after a soccer game that encapsulate the magic of sports. These moments make the average fan lose his voice, the avid fan paint her face and the total nutjob tattoo a Super Bowl prediction for 2034 on his calf.
Instant replay, injected into our games, robs sports of their humanity.
You might expect me to mention how baseball games already feel longer than fasting on Yom Kippur, or something of that nature. True, replay certainly adds to the lengths of games, particularly baseball. But that is not why I oppose the infiltration of technology into our games.
Science may shape our actions before workouts, data may influence our training and medicine may aid in our recoveries. But when the game begins, we are always nothing more than human at base. Like war, no matter how much a general or coach draws up our battle plans, the Maginot line might not work as planned — our opponent’s high-pressure defense might derail our possession-based attack.
Pete Carroll might diagnose plays on his Surface tablet for Russell Wilson in that far-too-often-aired Windows commercial. But the quarterback is the one who must read the defense to see if he ought to audible. He has to know if his arm is too sore or if the ball is feeling too slippery in the rain. He has to deliver a hard count over the deafening roars of a crowd. Instant replay, and technology at large, cannot equip us with sufficient answers for every human factor.
When the first whistle blows, all bets are off.
So many of the lessons that sports teach us derive from dealing with the errors of umpires. From bad calls, we learn to cope with a world that is not perfect. We are forced to reckon with justice that is not always evenhanded. We have to get back on defense rather than complain. We know not to let things we can’t control distract us.
Instead, the athlete puts her head down and works harder. She must do it again and do it better to earn her victory without a shred of doubt, to smash the ball into the back of the net rather than inches over the line. She has to create solutions that leave “luck” out of the equation. Validation only comes when she, yet again, forces the umpire to make a call — this time, leaving him no choice.
Maybe next time, Jaeden will get two feet in.
Kevin Bendesky | firstname.lastname@example.org