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NBA Refs See Mistakes, But Can't Fix Them, With Instant Replay


And it's time now for sports. There are only four basketball teams left competing for this year's NBA title. Later today, the Miami Heat will play the Indiana Pacers, and tomorrow the San Antonio Spurs will take on the Oklahoma City Thunder.

But the road here has been long and bumpy, marred by some controversial calls. And that's brought attention to instant replay, a system that allows referees to look back at what happened but not call fouls retroactively. To tell us more about this,'s Mike Pesca. Good morning, Mike.


NEARY: So I don't get this. Instant replay can't be used to retroactively call fouls on players. What good is it then?

PESCA: (Laughter) Well, that's exactly what the Clippers have been asking. So when they put in the system, they were sort of dragged there. All the sports leagues - I don't think inherently they love instant replay, but since all the games are on TV and since fans see examples of injustices, everyone wants to say, like, let's get the calls right.

So the NBA put their instant replay system in. They could tell if a ball goes out of bounds. They could tell if a three-point shooter's feet were behind the lines. But they can't call a foul. And this has led to a situation where, in a very crucial game where it was either going to be Thunder up, three-to-two, or Clippers up, three-to-two, in the series, it kind of did hinge on this call in a very crucial game.

Yeah, the ball did clearly go out on one team, but that's because the other team gave a foul. And if you can't call the foul, but you can only call the results of the foul, like, guy gets hacked in the arm and then he dribbles the ball out of bounds, then that just leads to the situation we have now, which is why are there fourteen triggers, things you can look at, but the biggest thing in basketball, a foul, cannot be called?

NEARY: Well - and I gather that during the playoffs, there've been some really questionable calls.

PESCA: Yeah.

NEARY: And one of the coaches, Doc Rivers of the LA Clippers, he called them series-altering. What happened?

PESCA: And they were. And this was the play that I just described that there was a really similar play the next night that was in the Clippers series - in the Heat's next series - a really similar call.

And it seems like the replays - the replay officials - you know, we ask instant replay to sort of - the analogy I would make is it's a court of appeals, right. And so we all realize that there're going to be some problems in the initial phase of meeting out justice. But then when they get to look at it, we want them to get it right.

Now with a real court of appeals, they might say, you know, well, the guilt or innocence of the defendant is not why we take the case. We take the case because it has to violate some procedure. And so the NBA has put in these procedures, but the procedures sometimes don't go to the heart of things. Doc Rivers was right. It was a series-altering foul - call. You know what else was series-altering? Every possession in that game.

But we focus on the instant replay because, like the court of appeals, that's supposed to be the thing that gets it right. And that's the thing - when that goes wrong, we excuse it less. It just seems unfathomable, and the NBA has got to tackle this head on because you don't want these calls, like you said, marring the playoffs.

NEARY: So do you have a curveball for us this week?

PESCA: I do. Let's talk about the Triple Crown.

NEARY: Oh, yeah.

PESCA: We have California Chrome winning the first two legs to win the Triple Crown. Now this has happened - since 1978, this has happened 13 times. 13 horses have been in a position to win the Triple Crown by winning the Belmont Stakes. And they haven't done it. And this is not a coincidence.

See, back when the Triple Crown and these three races were established, horse racing was a very different sport and horses would race every two weeks. But now horses have become like Ferraris or even, you know, high-performance sports cars. They need a lot of rest. And the Belmont Stakes is at the longest track in North America. So these horses who have been racing more than they're used to, these young horses, raced against a - sometimes a fresh field, and they don't win the Triple Crown.

California Chrome will be the favorite going in. And I'm going to say - even though he's a favorite, I'm going to contradict that and say, look at the last 13. He's unlikely to do it. It's a really, really high bar that they've set in the world of horse racing.

NEARY: Mike Pesca is host of Slate's daily podcast, "The Gist." Thanks for being with us, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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