YouTube's Zapruder films for sports junkies.

The stadium scene.
Oct. 18 2006 6:19 PM

Zapruder Films for Sports Junkies

How YouTube is making life miserable for referees.

In little more than a year, YouTube has become indispensable to pop-culture junkies, karaoke obsessives, and fans of trampoline-based mayhem. Sports fans, though, have received the richest bounty. Thanks to YouTube, it now takes a couple of seconds to queue up the remarkable bookends of Michael Jordan's career. Once-tiresome bar-stool debates now spring to life. Ronaldinho vs. Zidane? Barry Sanders vs. Bo Jackson? Let's go to the videotape! And for the fan who thinks he's seen everything, how about watching the world's greatest jocks ply their trade in high school?

YouTube hasn't merely loosed 10 lifetimes' worth of highlights. It's also revealed what we're losing when we watch games on television. ESPN.com's Bill Simmons has written that this hand-held footage of David Ortiz from the ALCS is the "only piece of video that comes even remotely close to explaining what it felt like to be sitting in Fenway after midnight on October 19, 2004." I knew I missed out when I wasn't in the Superdome to see Reggie Bush's first NFL touchdown. But I didn't realize how much I'd missed until I watched this shaky video of Bush's punt return. Damn.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

Of course, fandom isn't all dunks and touchdowns. Just as YouTube enabled sports junkies to revel in their team's greatest moments, it has also given us powerful new tools for wallowing in sports-borne sorrow. In the dark moments after a tough loss, there's nothing more cathartic than heading to YouTube to confirm what you already know in your heart: It was the ref's fault.

It's easy to understand why compilations of refereeing misdeeds have become ubiquitous on YouTube. A 2,000-word message-board screed or an angry phone call to an uncaring friend will help you blow off steam after a tough loss, but it probably won't win anyone over to your side. A video reel of the zebras' treachery, on the other hand, has the potential to win the hearts and minds of your fellow sports fans. People lie. The camera doesn't. Can't you see this wasn't pass interference?!

The morning after this year's Super Bowl, Slate argued that the "Pittsburgh Stealers" got the benefit of some shady officiating. A YouTube user did us one better, posting an exhaustive, 15-minute reel of every penalty in the game. Decide for yourself—did the Seahawks get screwed?

The sports scapegoat video takes many forms. There's the long compilation of grievances, as in the above Super Bowl clip and this reel from last month's controversial (to my Louisianan eyes) Auburn-LSU football game. Some beleaguered fans need only to upload a few seconds of offending footage. After last Sunday's Bengals-Bucs contest, angry Cincinnati fans could watch a four-second clip entitled, "This is roughing the passer?" The answer: obviously not. (If you're in need of solace, check out the comments below the clip. You don't have it as bad as this guy: "THAT PLAY LOST ME 500 DOLLARS.") Ref blaming also knows no age boundaries—even 10-year-old basketball players get ripped off by the zebras.

The obsessions of YouTube's amateur sports videographers can be seen most clearly in the videos of September's Oregon-Oklahoma game. The Ducks won, you might recall, after a replay official erroneously ruled that Oregon recovered a late-game onside kick.  The ref who made that call says he has gotten threatening phone calls. More civilized fans have thrown themselves into making YouTube Zapruder films that show the kick in spot-shadow and slow-motion from every possible angle. My favorite of these videos is a 40-second-long item called "Oregon Didnt Even Recover Onside Kick." Eleven seconds in, the screen goes dark, save for a spotlight on an Oklahoma player. "WATCH #23 RECOVER THE BALL," the on-screen text implores. I watch Oklahoma's #23 recover the ball. It must suck to be an Oklahoma fan.

In the end, the YouTube Zapruder film can't possibly live up to its promise. A homemade highlight reel will never win anyone's hearts and minds—all it does is add more noise to the postgame shouting match. Think the Seahawks got cheated? Some Steelers fan will post a video that shows Seattleites are a bunch of whiners. Got irrefutable evidence that Oklahoma recovered the onside kick? Somebody else has irrefutable evidence that Oregon was hurt by bad calls, too. YouTube shows us that the refs are always wrong. It's still up to you to decide who they screwed the most.