The issue of tradition versus modernization has always been a hotly debated one in the world of sports. Purists believe that departing from time-honored traditions will be the downfall of the game, while progressives feel the same about stubbornly refusing to change with the times. Everybody–the professional commentator, the casual fan, and my friend Nick, who inspired this post–has their own opinion on the matter. Personally, I’m somewhere in between. I can see the value of sticking to tradition and of changing with the times, but neither of those should be the sole reason for doing anything. Sticking to an obsolete, outdated tradition just because “That’s the way we’ve always done it” isn’t beneficial to anybody, and it can greatly hinder the natural evolution of a sport. But at the same time, doing away with perfectly valid traditions just for the sake of being modern can be just as harmful.

Take baseball, for example. A sport that has historically been extremely resistant to any change, and as a result, has remained virtually unchanged throughout the past century or so. Sure, some equipment has been updated in the interest of safety or, occasionally, better performance (that’s only partly a steroid joke), and the way we watch the game has changed dramatically.  But as far as the rules and playing style go, baseball today is very similar to the game that Babe Ruth played.


So is this a good thing or a bad thing? For the most part, I think it’s a good thing. Some people may disagree, but I believe that baseball has stayed the way it has for so long because it works. Part of the appeal of the game for many people is the fact that it’s a timeless American pastime, still the same game that it was at the beginning of its modern era over 100 years ago.

...and now. Aside from racial diversity and steroids, not much has changed.

But change doesn’t have to be bad. If it’s for the right reasons, change is often necessary. The big issue today for many sports, not just baseball, is instant replay. Technology exists that would allow umpires, referees, officials, whatever you want to call them, to easily take a second look at important plays in order to ensure that the right call was made. However, baseball and soccer have both taken a decisive stand against this sort of technology. The claims are that the pace of the game would be ruined (and let’s face it, do we really want to break up the fast-paced action of a 3 hour baseball game?), or that it would eliminate the human factor that is so important in both sports. Both perfectly valid arguments, but the other side has some pretty convincing arguments, too.

This shot by England was ruled a goal by everyone but the referees

Several of these arguments came at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, where a bunch of embarrassingly bad calls by referees led to outrage from fans, and demand for technology that could help prevent these mistakes in the future. In their match against Germany, England got screwed out of a game-tying goal because the referee, who had a poor line of sight on the play, claimed the ball never crossed the goal line. Instant replay showed without a doubt that the ball had crossed the line, and that the game should have been tied. Mexico had reason to argue the call when a goal by Argentina was allowed, despite their forward being clearly offside when he scored. Replay proved this, but FIFA rules don’t allow instant replay to overturn a referee’s call. In fact, FIFA rules won’t allow instant replay at the stadium at all in the future for controversial plays.

Wait, what?? Earlier today, a FIFA spokesman said that replaying Argentina’s disputed goal at the stadium was “a clear mistake,” because it led to arguments on the field when the players saw proof that the referee’s call was wrong. Spokesman Nicolas Maingot’s exact words were, “This shouldn’t happen. Replays can be shown but not when there are controversial situations. We will work on this and be tighter in future.”  This is insane. Any time the replay shows that they’ve clearly missed a pivotal call, they’re just going to sweep it under the rug and refuse to even show the replay, to avoid confrontation? Seriously, FIFA, get with the 21st century. If the replay clearly proves that the call was bad, and you’re so afraid of angering the players affected by the bad call when they see proof that they’re right, why not use that clear proof and reverse the call? If you don’t want to allow instant replay to affect the ruling on the field, that’s fine, but if your referees miss the call, they’ve got to be able to take the heat for it. Players and fans deserve to see what really happened, and you can’t just censor that because you realize you’ve made a mistake.

The perfect game that should have been

But enough soccer; let’s get back to baseball. Baseball has its fair share of arguments for instant replay, too. Remember the controversy over all the bad calls in last year’s postseason, several of which ended up directly affecting the outcome of games, and in turn the outcome of the playoffs. Or how about Jim Joyce’s missed call that cost Armando Galarraga a spot in the history books? Relying on human judgment is fine for the most part, but there are just some situations where human judgment doesn’t cut it. Even strict traditionalist MLB commissioner Bud Selig chose to allow instant replay for questionable home runs, because the closest umpire may be 200 feet away and not be able to see the ball leave the park from where he’s standing.

My final ruling? I say allow instant replay in both sports, but limit its use. For baseball, I’m okay with the current rule–instant replay is only allowed on disputed home runs. I might accept expanding that to plays at the plate, especially if the umpire doesn’t have a good view of the play, but no further than that. For soccer, I’d like something similar to the system that pro football (excuse me–American football) uses: each manager would have a limited number of challenges that they could use to get a second look at disputed goals. I like the aspect of judgment calls; they keep the human element in the game. But at the same time, I don’t think it’s right for the umpire or referee to have to make a straight-up guess, especially on a scoring play, just because they weren’t in a position to see the play. In those situations, there’s no reason not to allow technology to help out. It’s all about compromise.