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Counterpoint: Instant Replay Is Broken, And That's Fantastic News

Never let a good crisis go to waste

Brian Blanco

Let's not belabour the point: Baseball games take a long time; replays are slow. Thanks in part to round number bias (a derivative of anchoring that causes humans to place extra value on round numbered achievements, such a player's 30th homerun or 20th win), viewers lose interest and baseball as an institution crumbles around us because the average game now takes over 3 hours to complete.

That's a good thing.

Everyone say hi to now-deceased Mackinac Center for Public Policy Senior VP, Joseph Overton. Back in the mid 1990s our new friend published a theory – later dubbed The Overton Window – that there exists a limited range of politically acceptable policies that a politician may pursue at any given time should he or she hope to gain or retain office. He posited that the range is a function solely of public opinion and not of the politician's individual desires and beliefs. Nothing groundbreaking there, I know, but Overton's work formalized what was merely intuitive before and laid the framework for what has become a commonly used qualitative ranking of an idea's or policy's acceptability to the public:

  • Unthinkable
  • Radical
  • Acceptable
  • Sensible
  • Popular
  • Policy

(Note that something can be literal policy without actually being on the "Policy" rung of acceptability.)

Naturally, the higher on the list that an idea falls the more dangerous it is for a politician to support it, and the lower it falls the more dangerous it is to oppose it. In the context of the presidential dictatorship that is Major League Baseball (we've been through enough years of Bud Brett Favreing his retirement plans that we might as well just anoint him Perpetual Dictator), the danger comes not in the form of losing office, but of losing revenue. For context: currently, home run reviews are probably Popular, expanded replay as was introduced this year is probably somewhere between Radical and Acceptable, immediate review of all plays from a 5th umpire in a control room is Unthinkable, and computerizing ball and strike calls is so far above Unthinkable that we'd have to knock down the entire Overton house just to fit it in the window.

If one believes, as I do, that the goal of officiating a multi-billion dollar sports league is to make calls that accurately reflect the outcome of a play instead of the whims of fallible, capricious, egotistical, possibly-unintentionally and sometimes-definitely-knowingly-if-unintentionally biased referees or umpires, then the minimum eventual goal is the immediate review of all safe/out and fair/foul calls, and quite likely full computerization of balls and strikes as well. So how do we get there? There are two primary means of shifting the Overton Window: allowing natural shift through rational discourse and the occasional high profile occurrence that shifts public sentiment, and the door-in-the-face technique.

The door-in-the-face method preys on the anchoring bias by proposing an unreasonably progressive/regressive option with the expectation that it will be shot down quickly. However, it succeeds in reframing the conceivable outer extreme position such that the midpoint of all possibilities shifts in the desired direction. The latter option only really works when those in power want to shift public opinion, since none of the individual voters (in the case of the MLB we vote with our wallets) have the reach or power necessary to be heard by a sufficient number of other voters. As we've seen with the MLB, the powers that be clearly have no desire to expand the scope of instant replay, and, if anything, have long pushed against it (see: the brilliant branding of "the human element" supplanting a desire for technical correctness), so door-in-the-face is a non-option here and we're left relying on the natural shift of the window through discourse and notable events. Say, where would one find a notable, possibly public-perception-shifting event pertaining to the expansion of instant replay in the MLB? Ah, yes, 700 words up page.

So, games are running too long (I'll note that I don't really get complaining about something you enjoy lasting for slightly longer, but I digress), and that's a good thing for the human element-hating sports fan thanks, ironically, to the World Umpires Association. The expansion of instant replay came with eight new rotation positions for MLB umpires, with 2 manning the control room each gameday. If not for the expansion of the number of umpire jobs, it would have been relatively easy for the MLB to cite public pressure as a reason to try to push back or suspend the expanded replay rules, and the MLBPA likely wouldn't have fought hard against it since the average player looks to be even more change averse (see: any number of interviews on the subject of nontraditional in-game strategy) than the average fan.

The Umpires Union, which has somehow become the strongest union at all related to the big 4 North American sports, however, would never and will never agree to a reduction in the number of jobs, so the MLB's only option to rectify the game length issue is to expand and fine tune the rules governing instant replay. Every time the expansion or adjustment of instant replay is in the news the replay debate moves away from the existence versus nonexistence thereof and towards the nuts and bolts of its implementation, and the idea of replay's existence becomes more entrenched and less radical to the public and moves towards Sensibility or Popularity.

Furthermore, as the subheading of this article makes reference to, the bigger an issue and the greater the public outcry, the more willing the public is to handle policy that would otherwise be considered radical or unthinkable. This synergizes well with the fact that most entities (and especially, I suspect, risk-averse ones such as the MLB) tend to prefer to not have to deal with the same crisis on a regular basis. Intentionally or otherwise, there is a tendency to slightly overcorrect when attempting to rectify an issue and to end up in a position a touch more radical than would be expected for a given level of public acceptance.

The table is set for the Overton Window to edge just a little bit upwards. There's a barrier to exit (the umpires), name fatigue is slowly reframing the debate, the public is slightly more willing to accept more change than usual, the MLB has incentive to overcorrect, and baseball fans who are fans of almost any other major professional sport have already seen that replay works. The changes made to instant replay in the coming weeks or months won't have a terribly large impact from an implementation standpoint, cutting the length of the average game down by a few minutes, but they will shift the public opinion ever so slightly towards accepting the inevitable rule of our benevolent(?) metal overlords. ALL HAIL UMPBOT4000! greater replay integration in our baseball watching lives.