How to Fix Instant Replay

Hindsight is 20/20 or whatever, but instant replay use across baseball, football, tennis, and basketball is far less clear.  All the professional sports I follow use replay in some capacity.  But the game of “challenges” and absurd evidentiary standards for a reversal are blunting the full and positive impact it could have on sports. Most sports impose an unnecessarily high bar to justify reversing the call on the field and initiate reviews.

  • NFL: “…clear and obvious visual evidence”
  • NCAAF: “The replay official may reverse a ruling if and only if the video evidence convinces him beyond all doubt that the ruling was incorrect.”
  • NCAAB: indisputable evidence that the call on the floor was incorrect.”
  • MLB: clear and convincing evidence to change the original call…definitively conclude”
  • NBA: “A call is overturned only if there is ‘clear and conclusive’ visual evidence for doing so.”

My problem with these standards is that we’re talking about a completion not a conviction.  Nobody is being sent to prison for this, so why we need a replay standard to satisfy Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men is beyond me.  If it is 50.1% more likely the call should be reversed then the call should be reversed.  A preponderance of the evidence is sufficient based on a “de novo” review is straightforward and fair.  The call on the field need not carry any precedential weight.  The NCAAF rule book explicitly states that the “fundamental assumption” is that the call on the field is correct.  Uhhhh….why?  A live action play at full speed should not have any binding precedent for a replay review stitched together with slow motion high definition shots from multiple angles.

My aunt once dated an NCAAF official and he told me about how they got “dings” for missed calls.  They get graded and your grades influence who gets the high profile assignments including post season assignments.  That makes sense.  But I hope replay reversals are not a factor.  Replay reversals are a prophylactic for the profession and getting a call on the field shouldn’t count against the referee’s overall grade.  I’ve officiated soccer and remember being taught how “advantage” in soccer is a ref’s best friend because you can’t mess it up.  If the advantage materializes you let the play continue and give the attacking team its chance.  If it fizzles right away, you pull the play back to the original infraction.  Replay should be similar.  You tried to get it right on the field but it was a tough call. So lets use video to double check and ensure we get it right without penalizing officials on the field.  That also removes a sort of incentive for the independent replay official to side with the crew on the field.  That’s easier if there is no grading penalty for reversals on an officials report card.  And it’s easier to do with a preponderance standard.

In the NFL turnovers and scoring plays are automatically reviewed.  So officials should be encouraged to let plays play out knowing that in the case of turnovers or scoring plays a review is automatically triggered.  Blowing a play dead with any doubt is dumb because “worst case” you can always fix it in the automatic review.  Officials’ grades should be forgiving in this instance.  If it’s at all close, let the play continue.  Early in the Lions-Vikings game the officials let a play go that to my eyes live looked like an incompletion not a fumble.  But they smartly let the play continue and the Lions scooped up the ball.  A turnover is an automatic review and the call was correctly reversed to an incompletion (Sam Bradford’s arm was going forward making it an incomplete pass).  The officials here wisely let it play out knowing an automatic review could fix it if necessary and that’s exactly what happened.  Thus ends the last positive example of officiating I will ever scribe.  NCAAF has independent reviews but that didn’t stop officials from nearly costing Wisconsin the winning score in the all important Holiday Bowl matchup last season against USC.  QB/S/TE Tanner McEvoy sprinting to the endzone and the officials whistle the play dead saying McEvoy stepped out of bounds.  Replay showed nope.  It was sort of close (although it was pretty clear he was in bounds).  Why not let the play go knowing there is an automatic review (especially since he was all alone and clearly going to score) forthcoming.  Replay should be a safety net.

The challenges drive me crazy.  I hate the extra decision making for coaches who have to figure out whether this piece of field position or base runner is worth burning a challenge early on. For example, suppose the first play of the game, a coach thinks that a 2nd & 1 should be 2nd & 10 because the opposing WR didn’t make the catch.  Probably not worth burning a challenge there knowing that at most you’d have 2 more left (more on that in a second) if you’re right.  But that’s a big difference in terms of offensive and defensive calls.  The call is wrong, the offense gets the break, and if effects at a minimum, field position, and perhaps the final outcome.  The other flaw here is that SPOILER* officials miss more than 3 calls a game.  And in the NFL that most challenges you can get is 3 and that’s only if you nail your first 2 with the murder conviction review standard.   Similar in tennis, early in a set you might not want to burn a challenge on a marginal call at 15-15.  In tennis, it’s 1-on-1, and unless you’re Rafa Nadal, there is no coach helping you out during the match.  They got enough to think about and the Hawkeye replay reviews in tennis don’t take that long.  There is no reason an extra official couldn’t be at the ready to double check every close call and alert the match umpire if a correction is needed.  While the challenge is fun for pompous football writers like Bill Barnwell to snigger at, it adds needless complications to the game that fail to support the underlying universal goal of improving officiating accuracy.  There is no reason to use a challenge system.  Of course coaches will complain when a call isn’t reviewed they think should be, but that’s what coaches do.

It should work in theory like the judicial branch.  Insulated from unsavory influences and independent making decisions exclusively on the best available evidence.  One independent extra member of the officiating crew reviews every play (like in the NCAAF) and alerts the center referee/umpire if a call warrants further review.

Suggested Universal Replay Rules

*no replay system is going to be perfect.  There will still be missed calls that unfairly influence the outcome.  But the current mix of replay systems are deeply flawed.  I’m proposing what I hope is a simpler system that is fairer to coaches, fans, players, and even the official themselves.  It will lengthen games so pro sports leagues would have to sell more ad time.

  1. The goal of replay reviews is to correct errors and get the call right.
  2. The “call on the field” shall have no binding precedent for purposes of the review as each review is done “de novo” which is latin for I think “anew” or something.
  3. A preponderance of the evidence (50.1% a call should be reversed) is enough.
    1. No need for the absurdly high bar for reversals established by the NCAA and professional leagues.  If it is simply more probable than not that a call should be reversed then it should be reversed.  I don’t need conclusive or irrefutable or indisputable evidence to know the current standard is silly.
  4. Every officiating crew shall have an extra, independent “replay official” to review every play and alert the head official/umpire to stop the game.
  5. No more coaches challenges.
    1. Won’t be necessary and eliminates the calculation about if a blown call is significant enough to burn a challenge.  I’ll never understand the low limit on challenges.
  6. Nearly every call should be subject to review.
    1. Yes, this includes Pass Interference and Facemask penalties in football.  Balls-and-strikes in baseball wouldn’t be feasible.  Not every foul in soccer could be corrected but penalty kicks and free kicks in the final 1/3 could be looked at.  Fouls in basketball would be difficult but a replay review could hopefully weed out the most egregious mistakes.  The ball would return to the offensive team with the shot clock at the time the whistle was blown.
  7. Replay reversals should not count against referee/umpire grading.
    1. I think too many calls that stand are in part a hedge to protect the referees and their fragile egos and grades.



According to the NFL, “only 36% of replay reviews since 1999 have been overturned.”  Evidently that’s a point of pride for them that 64% of call are upheld.  But that’s not the same thing as 64% of the original calls on the field being correct. The NFL says just 415 of the 40,406 plays in during the 2015 season were reviewed (1.03%).  Of course, the NFL also says that “fouls” are no reviewable[1], save for a 12-man penalty.

The NFL Rule Book affords each team two challenges and a single challenge is restored if a team wins both challenges.[2]  So at most, a team can have three challenges but only if it goes 2/2 on its original allotment.  The NFL rules state that

“[a] A decision will be reversed only when the Referee has clear and obvious visual evidence available that warrants the change.[3]

NFL History of Instant Replay (by the NFL)


The NCAA Football Rule Book has a high bar for replay reversals based on the stated “Philosophy:”

“The instant replay process operates under the fundamental assumption that the ruling on the field is correct. The replay official may reverse a ruling if and only if the video evidence convinces him beyond all doubt that the ruling was incorrect. Without such indisputable video evidence, the replay official must allow the ruling to stand.”[4]


Under the NCAA replay system, a replay official can initiate a review if there is “reasonable evidence to believe an error was made in the initial on-field ruling.”[5]  A head coach can use a timeout to initiate a replay challenge and gets the timeout back if the challenge is successful.[6]


The NCAA Basketball Rule Book also has a high bar based for replay reversals:

In order for an official to change or reverse a call made on the floor, the official must first find that the monitor review reveals by indisputable evidence that the call on the floor was incorrect.”[7]

Surprisingly, nothing in there explicitly mentions giving Duke every call but I guess that’s where the phrase “unwritten rule” comes from.  The rules prohibit using replay for determining if a foul occurred or whether goaltending/basket interference did.  In the last two minutes of the second half replay can be used to determine possession.[8]  Replay is only “mandatory” when a call is significant to the game outcome for fouls, shots, or shot-clock violation at the end of a period.[9]


Information compiled by MLBReplayStats from 2014 indicate that of the 1,279 Challenged Calls, 606 (47.4%) were overturned and 673 (52.6%) were upheld.  The MLB Rules offer a detailed sketch of the exact procedures and time limits for permissible challenges. Every team receives 1 challenge for regular season games and 2 for postseason games.[10]  If team retains its challenge if the challenge is successful.  The MLB rules expressly limit the “Replay Official” to only reviewing the calls from the original “Challenge” or those “accepted for review by the Crew Chief.”[11] The MLB rules outline the standard for reversing a call:

“To change a reviewable call, the Replay Official must determine that there is clear and convincing evidence to change the original call that was made on the field of play. In other words, the original decision of the Umpire shall stand unchanged unless the evidence obtained by the Replay Official leads him to definitively conclude that the call on the field was incorrect.”[12]



The NBA hybrid system has certain replay reviews triggered by the on-court officials and others from the replay command center.

“The current standard for overturning a call made on the floor will remain for all instant-replay reviews.  A call is overturned only if there is ‘clear and conclusive’ visual evidence for doing so.”[13]



The rules for Wimbeldon indicate a player is allowed 3 challenges per set with an additional 1 challenged granted for a tiebreak.  Challenges may not be carried over to a subsequent set.  The Wimbeldon wrinkle is that if a set is tied at 6-6 “the counter is rest” and each player again has 3 challenges apiece.  There is no final set tiebreak at Wimbeldon.  The US Open also uses a replay system but the French Open does not since the red clay at the French Open leaves a mark that is not present on grass or hard court.[14]

[1] Rule 15 Article 4(a)

[2] Rule 15 Section 2 Article 1

[3] Rule 15 Article 3

[4] Rule 12 Article 2

[5] Rule 12 Section 5(1)(a)

[6] Rule 12 Section 5(1)(b)

[7] Rule 11 Section 1. Art. 1

[8] Rule 11 Section 2. Art. 1

[9] Rule 11 Section 3. Art. 1

[10] Section II(B)(1)

[11] Section II(I)

[12] Section III




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