Tony Verna should get all of the credit and none of the blame

For better or worse, instant replay went from an entertainment device to a means of deciding borderline calls on the field.

Let’s go to the video, Biff, for another look at instant replay 54 years after its invention: As a means of enhancing entertainment for sporting events on TV, it has been a good thing. As far as being used to rule on borderline calls on the field, it has been, well, borderline at best.

When he used instant replay for the first time during a live sports telecast on Dec. 7, 1963, director Tony Verna was simply trying to fill a void in the action to extend the excitement of a scoring play. Late in the annual Army-Navy game, Army quarterback Carl “Rollie” Stichweh scored on a one-yard touchdown run to cut Navy’s lead to 21-13, pending the extra point.

Then, to the amazement of the CBS viewing audience, Stichweh immediately scored again. Was the game about to be tied? What happened?

He hadn’t scored again; it only seemed like it. “This is not live!” announcer Lindsey Nelson shouted. “Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again.”

CBS had not mentioned that it would use instant replay on that milestone day, for fear the technology wouldn’t work. But using an Ampex tape machine the size of a washer-dryer to rewind the videotape and run it before the next play, Verna found the right spot to unveil the technology that is now a permanent sports fixture. Instant replay not only revisited the drama of a previous play, it could reveal aspects or details that we hadn’t noticed during the original viewing. CBS used the technology a month later for the Cotton Bowl on January 1, when announcer Pat Summerall gave the process its name.

The National Football League—seeing how instant replay could reveal new information about plays—eventually decided to marry it with slow-motion filming (the latter invented in the early 20th century by Austrian priest August Musger) as a way to “resolve” close calls. The NFL adopted a limited instant replay system in 1986; in 1999 it evolved into the current system whereby coaches can challenge a ruling on the field.

By the 1990s, instant replay was used to review calls by officials in football, basketball, hockey and other sports. Major League Baseball joined them in 2014. Sports Illustrated called instant replay one of the 20 most significant “tipping points” in sports in the second half of the 20th century.

Overreaching its utility?

Instant replay’s impact on sports cannot be debated. Its usefulness in ruling on plays is highly debatable.

The evolution of instant replay in the NFL has produced many problems, according to Time magazine: “A coach who got his two challenges right would get a third. Then it grew further still. All scoring plays were exempted from the challenge cap. Then all turnovers were. If a runner fell to the ground as he was in the process of scoring, or if a ballcarrier lost his handle as he was on the way down, there would assuredly be a review.”

Perhaps the most controversial post-replay ruling in NFL history helped send a team to the Super Bowl after its quarterback trudged off a snowy field, resigned to fumbling the game away and without a hint of protest. In the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 19, 2002, Oakland’s Charles Woodson sacked New England quarterback Tom Brady for an apparent turnover with 1:50 left and the Raiders leading, 13-10. All the Raiders had to do was run out the clock to advance to the Super Bowl.

But after a replay, officials decided to cite an obscure stipulation called the “tuck rule.” They ruled that Brady’s arm was coming forward when he was hit—which made the play an incomplete pass, not a fumble. That enabled the Patriots to kick a tying field goal and win in overtime. New England, not Oakland, went to the Super Bowl, and won it.

Baseball joins in

A historically bad call by umpire Jim Joyce—ironically, one of the best umpires in the game—is seen as a turning point in MLB opting for instant replay. On June 2, 2010, in Detroit, Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga was denied a perfect game when Joyce incorrectly ruled a runner safe at first base on a play that wasn’t even close and should have ended the game. MLB went to instant replay less than four years later.

In announcing its decision, MLB thumped its collective chest with a vow to “get it right for the fans.” That noble intent notwithstanding, a likely factor in the rules change was the fact that MLB would not or could not fire umpires who show repeated incompetence and belligerence. Instant replay was the only answer.

The move to instant replay has resulted in some painful changes. Besides the numerous delays while awaiting a decision from an anonymous person watching from hundreds of miles away, instant replay has robbed MLB of badly needed color. Players’ and managers’ arguments with umpires, once part of the game’s fabric, are all but gone; instead, after a questionable call the manager merely turns to a coach to ask whether the play is reviewable.

Enduring legacy

Don’t blame Tony Verna. “I didn’t invent instant replay to improve officiating, or anything like that,” he was quoted as saying in Pacific Standard magazine in 2013. “I invented it for a better telecast.”

Verna’s invention was somewhat bittersweet for himself, too: CBS “never gave me the recognition,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2008. “This wasn’t a mushroom that came out of the ground. There wasn’t a button you could hit. Someone had to come up with it.”

He received no patent or payment for his revolutionary invention. But Verna—who, among other accomplishments, co-produced and co-directed “Live Aid,” the 1985 fundraiser for African famine relief—was satisfied with his place in history when he died two years ago at age 81.

As he told the Associated Press many years earlier: “Not many things you can do in life where you can change the way things were happening before.”