The NFL’s Foolish Replay System

If you’re a big believer in the ability of our institutions to maximize the quality and efficiency with which they serve their patrons, here’s a conundrum: The NFL still has an on-field official conduct instant replay reviews.

This is the league’s chosen practice despite the fact that technology exists that would allow a call to be made instantly. Stick a group of retired officials in TV-filled room anywhere in America, and by the time a call is officially challenged they’ll have already made a decision. The decision can then be instantly communicated through the wonders of telecommunication. The NFL doesn’t see it this way, and as a result million of Americans waste 5-10 minutes during each game watching an official go under the hood.

The current system doesn’t just waste time — it also leads to inferior decision making. Multiple studies have shown that referees can be influenced by home crowds (see here and here). So what does the NFL do? They have the referee attempt to make up his mind as 60,000 fans react to seeing the play on the scoreboard. The referee may also be influenced by a host of cognitive biases (e.g. confirmation bias) stemming from his initial observation of the play, or he could be affected by the unconscious desire to see his crew’s orignal call stand up.

So why won’t the NFL change the system? It seems to be a mystery. This article about the decision not the change the system lists the reasons why the Buffalo Bills proposed a change, but it doesn’t give any reason why owners voted against it. The only explanation I can think of is that the current system is more lucrative for owners. Longer games mean more commercial time for TV stations, and by letting on-field officials make the calls teams don’t have to pony up cash to build a command center and hire refs to staff it.

Obviously this isn’t a big priority for America, but there’s a lesson in there somewhere about misaligned incentives and institutional stagnation. Perhaps whatever solution solves the NFL’s inability to better serve its fans could someday be molded to solve our political institutions’ inability to better serve its citizens.
Boyko, R.H., Boyko, A.R., & Boyko, M.G. (2007). Referee bias contributes to home advantage in English Premiership football Journal of Sports Sciences DOI: 10.1080/02640410601038576

Nevill, A.M., Blamer, N.J., & Williams, A.M. (2012). The influence of crowd noise and experience upon refereeing decisions in football Psychology of Sport and Excercise DOI: 10.1016/S1469-0292(01)00033-4

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