On SEC Replays

Pardon me if I don't do backflips over the recent announcement that the Southeastern Conference intends to use instant replay in football games next fall in an attempt to improve officiating. Part–but only part–of my skepticism is the report of the limits that will be on the process. More than that is the human factor, which has proved to be a weak link in recent years.

The SEC announced last week that it will implement the use of instant reply on an experimental basis beginning with the 2005 football season. And everyone is just gushing with enthusiasm.

SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said, "Through every meeting and discussion with our coaches, athletics directors and Presidents and Chancellors, the use of instant replay received overwhelming support. Our officials make every effort to get each call right. Instant replay will go a long way in helping them accomplish their goal."

This is the same commissioner who a couple of years ago said, "I nearly jumped out of my chair" when he saw a missed call that favored Alabama in a game at Tennessee. That was in a game that Alabama won by 20 points and the missed call was hardly a factor in the outcome.

Both Slive and Bobby Gaston, who is supervisor of officials, cited that play as though it was the only call missed all year. Alabama officials are still trying to find anything that looks remotely like holding on a play that wiped out an Alabama touchdown in a two-point loss to Georgia two weeks earlier. That made-up call–or any of dozens and dozens like it–gets mentioned by SEC bureaucrats.

Still, everyone is in step in support of the plan. Alabama Coach Mike Shula said, "From everything we've talked about, it's a good idea. We've talked to officials from the Big Ten. Anything we can to to make our game better, we need to do." He said one concern of a replay system is that it can sometimes take awhile to review a situation.

I'll give you another concern. Another SEC official is going to be in charge of the replay system. Which one?

The one who couldn't see a blatant pass interference in the end zone in Alabama's game at LSU last fall? That same official, by the way, missed a holding call against LSU a few minutes later, leading directly to a game-changing touchdown by the Bengal Tigers.

Or maybe the one that watched a Tennessee player slap a Florida player, saw the Florida player retaliate, and then penalized Florida while ignoring the Tennessee infraction. Or perhaps his comrade, who incorrectly stopped the clock so Tennessee would have enough time to come from behind and beat the Gators.

I wonder if Commissioner Slive jumped out of his chair on those calls in Knoxville? All they did was cost Florida a game and, probably, Ron Zook his job as head coach at Florida.

A group that only under the most extreme circumstances admits any mistakes by its officials seems unlikely to put any teeth into a mechanism in which calls on the field would be overruled.

Incidentally, early indication from the conference is that the replay system would not address mistakes such as those at Baton Rouge and Knoxville last season. Details of the use of instant replay in the SEC will be worked out by the conference's spring meetings, which will be held in Destin, Florida, May 31-June 3.

Why is there any reason to believe the conference's football replay system will be any better than the haphazard system in place in basketball. In SEC basketball games if the game is being televised the officials have an opportunity to check the replay. In the SEC Women's Basketball Tournament in Greenville, South Carolina, last week, Alabama tied number one ranked LSU with a three-point field goal in the final seconds. And while both Alabama and LSU benches were preparing for overtime, the SEC officials spent time examining replays. Although no one else has seen a replay that shows anything other than a three-point shot–as originally called by the officiating crew–the huddle resulted in the officials preserving LSU's number one ranking and prematurely ending the final season of Alabama women's basketball under Rick Moody, who had announced his retirement at the end of the season.

Would LSU have beaten Alabama in overtime? Probably. But the games should be decided by the players, not a mysterious official's decision.

The SEC crew chief, Brian Enterline, consented to a post-game interview to explain the bizare decision. He said he looked at two replays, the first "not clear," the second showing the officials had missed the call, that it was only a two-pointer. That second replay, he said, was "110 per cent" conclusive. Enterline then said, "It's a tough play, but we made a decision totally unbiased. We make sure that the decision is as professional and unbiased as possible."

Now why not once, but twice, would he say the decision was unbiased? Guilty conscience?

Would you want Brian Enterline in the replay booth deciding the outcome of an Alabama football game?

Maybe instant replay in football games will be the greatest improvement in the game since free substitution. I hope so. But I have my doubts.


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