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June 21, 2024
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Adam Silver Considering Task Force to Fix Broken NBA Replay

NBA commissioner Adam Silver believes technology could help solve the league’s replay review woes.

Time and again, referee decisions—and the process in place to correct their calls—have come under fire during the playoffs. Non-calls (which are generally unreviewable) have fanned dissent going back to Game 2 of the Knicks and 76ers’ first-round clash. Sunday, it was a potential push by Jaylen Brown in the final minute of the Celtics’ Game 2 win that had play-by-play caller Mike Breen displeased at the end of the game.

“There should’ve been a foul called,” he said over the replay of a potentially game—and series—deciding block of P.J. Washington.

Other times it is the decisions coming out of challenges that bother onlookers and players alike.

“What the f… do we have a Replay Center for,” LeBron James asked in April after a foul attributed to Michael Porter Jr. was wiped away despite the fact he struck D’Angelo Russell’s head. “It bothers me.”

Then there’s the issue of time itself. TNT analyst Stan Van Gundy, a longtime review skeptic, frequently complained about the length of reviews during the Western Conference Finals. “We’re taking way too much time here,” he said during one such look. “Though I’ve heard from a lot of fans—they love watching the referees stand at the monitor and watch replays.”

The challenge, then, is clear—get every call right, and take no time to do it. It’s an impossible situation that close to every sport now faces. Increasing numbers of high-quality camera angles have made it easier to spot missed calls while also making comprehensive reviews more time intensive. The expansion of sports gambling, meanwhile, has put a bigger spotlight on ensuring accuracy, all while viewer attention spans shrink.

Technology is largely to blame for the current morass. Can it really also offer a way out?

At his pre-Finals press conference, Silver said that he too is frustrated by the length of reviews. “I’m like a fan at home,” he said, “Where I’m thinking, 30 seconds, 40 seconds, what’s happening!?”

Unlike fans, though, Silver has the capability to change things. He said the league is in talks with tech providers at Sony-owned Hawk-Eye about automating objective calls such as out-of-bounds and goaltending. “Technology will solve that,” Silver said.

For other issues, he mentioned the possibility of a task force to come up with possible process changes (a review review, so to speak). The WNBA has already made some improvements, such as the ability to account for fouls during out-of-bounds reviews. 

But it might be time for an even bigger reset. Ensuring correct calls can’t take precedence over offering entertaining products.

Rather than prioritizing the infinitesimal rigor of every call, leaders like Silver ought to focus on messaging. Rulebooks were not written with the incredible clarity of 4k in mind. Some of the rules themselves make little sense under intense scrutiny. Fans have come to accept irrationality in all number of aspects of the modern sports experience. At some point, it’s worth accepting that this is all more art than science, and ought to be treated that way. And yet, with the direction we’re going, where press conference complaints and official grievances dominate headlines, the only endpoints seem to be an increasingly intricate appeals system—or trust in the possibility of an all-seeing computer.

Swedish football has gone another direction, an outlier among sporting bodies in its ability to keep reviews out of the game.

“VAR is a symbol of modern, commercialized-to-the-point-of-destruction football,” Stockholm club AIK supporters’ leader Ola Thews told the Associated Press in April.

Once instituted, however, the infrastructure is rarely curtailed. 

In October, the English Premier League’s video assistant referee system earned ridicule when a clear case of human-to-human miscommunication in the replay process took a go-ahead goal away from Liverpool.

In the aftermath, review lengths spiked by roughly 60%, likely because other refs wanted to avoid that same embarrassment. One wrong call led to many long ones.

Wolverhampton went so far as to propose discontinuing the interventions. But they were outvoted, 19-1. Instead, the league will implement semi-automated offside tech next year to make correct calls more quickly. At least in theory.

“I know we can do better,” Silver said Thursday. “And a lot of it has to do with technology.” He seemed uninterested in winding back the clock.

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