December 28, 2007

Texas Touching and Replay Review

As most everyone is aware by now, Texas assistant and Mack Brown stepson Chris Jessie appears to have touched a live fumble in last night's Holiday Bowl against Arizona State. The penalty resulted in a dead ball and a half-the-distance-to-the-goal penalty, allowing Arizona State to score and get back to 21-7.

Watch the replay below. While it certainly appears likely that Jessie touched the ball, it's not indisputable.

In the law, we have "standards of review". Cases are reviewed at the appellate level either as de novo, which is a totally fresh look at the case, for "abuse of discretion", where the trial judge's decision will only be overturned for a clear abuse of his/her judicial discretion, or for "clear error", where only obvious misapplication of the rules will result in reversal.

Instant replay review is supposed to be like clear error review. The referee may only overturn the call made by an official on the field (the trial judge in our analogy) if there is indisputable visual evidence that the call was incorrect. From looking at the video, indisputable visual evidence is not present.

The actual wording of the NCAA's replay standard is as follows:

Standard: There must be indisputable video evidence for an on-field officiating decision to be changed by the Instant Replay Official working from a private booth in the press box. Indisputable video evidence can be described as sufficient, viewable camera angles that provide undeniable proof that a correction to the call is necessary. Additionally, the play must have direct competitive impact on the game to warrant game stoppage for review. Instant replay officials will be instructed to err on the side of caution when competition will be directly affected, but to refrain from stopping the game any more than necessary. The replay system will not guarantee that all officiating decisions are corrected.

We see this a lot in the NCAA and NFL. Some referees strictly adhere to the rule, while others will permit assumptions to be made. In the video, the spin of the ball appears to change as though it has been touched. Chris Jessie recoils in a way that indicates reaction to touching the ball. Still, neither of those are indisputable visual evidence that Jessie made contact with the ball.

Further, this whole exercise in predicting the physics of a bouncing football is unnecessary. Under the NCAA replay reviewable situations, number 3(d) is "number of players on field during a play." Texas clearly had players all over the field, and the result would have been the same.

We need to make sure our referees are uniformly applying replay review.

[Special thanks to Houston-based attorney David A. Rassin for bringing up the standard of review aspect of this discussion.]

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