Using Instant Replay to Teach Standards of Review

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By David Sorkin Associate Professor of Law
The John Marshall Law School

Using Instant Replay to Teach Standards of Review
David E. Sorkin, The John Marshall Law School
Bepress – David Sorkin 

A colleague recently posted a question on the Legal Writing Institute’s mailing list, seeking ideas for “fun” ways to teach students about standards of appellate review. Several other colleagues responded with suggestions, some of them noting the similarity between legal standards of review and the standard for overturning a official’s call in a football game or other sporting event. The point has also been the subject of considerable legal scholarship.[1]

I use an exercise in my first-year legal writing classes based upon this similarity. After introducing the concept of standards of appellate review, I show my students a brief clip of a football play involving a close call, and ask students to articulate the relevant rule —for example, a forward pass is illegal after the ball has crossed the line of scrimmage. I tell students to apply that rule to the facts they have observed and vote on the appropriate call.

Next, I show the actual call that was made by the field official. Some students will undoubtedly disagree with that call and suggest that it ought to have been challenged. Sometimes a student will even reference the standard that governs instant replay reviews—“clear and obvious visual evidence” warranting reversal (or as it was termed prior to 2016, “indisputable visual evidence”). We then watch the play in slow motion and discuss whether the call should have been reversed under that standard. This leads into a discussion of why the NFL has selected that standard of review, whether it is the appropriate standard, and how it compares to the standards of review used by appellate courts.

One play that works well for this exercise is the so-called “Instant Replay Game”—Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers, November 5, 1989:

Packers quarterback Don Majkowski threw an apparent game-winning touchdown pass with less than a minute remaining in the game. The linesman called a penalty on the basis that Majkowski had crossed the line of scrimmage before releasing the ball, making it an illegal forward pass. The Packers challenged the call and the referee reinstated the touchdown after viewing an instant replay, ruling that Majkowski had not crossed the line of scrimmage. (The rule itself was subsequently changed, to define an illegal forward pass based upon the position of the passer’s feet instead of the position of the ball.)

For a more accessible example, consider Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys, September 15, 2008:

Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson caught a long pass and ran into the end zone, flipping the football behind him to celebrate what appeared to be his first NFL touchdown. The Cowboys challenged the touchdown call, noting that Jackson had already flipped the ball by the time he reached the goal line. The call was reversed, and the Cowboys ultimately won the game by four points. (Jackson’s hasty celebrations date back to his high school days.)

Several controversial calls were made by replacement officials during the NFL referee lockout of 2012, including the “Inaccurate Reception”—Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks, September 24, 2012:

Down by five points with eight seconds remaining, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson threw a long pass to receiver Golden Tate in the end zone. Both Tate and Packers safety M.D. Jennings got their hands on the ball. The two replacement officials near the play made contradictory calls and then ruled that the two players had simultaneous possession, resulting in a game-winning touchdown for Seattle. On review, the referee ruled that there was not adequate evidence to overturn the call, so the touchdown stood. (The scope of review was limited by NFL rules; the field officials probably should have called offensive pass interference and voided the touchdown on that basis.) Two days later, the NFL settled with the referees association, ending the lockout.

There are, of course, many other examples that will work. For example, the Dallas Cowboys lost a 2015 playoff game as a result of a reversed call. A collateral attack on that ruling (brought by a prisoner suing the NFL) was dismissed on procedural grounds.

Some may prefer to use examples from other sports. Most use a standard of review similar to that of the NFL.

The exercise gives students an opportunity to practice legal analysis in a familiar (or at least different) context, and is especially helpful in introducing them to what otherwise can be a very dry topic.

I hesitate to use sports analogies in class, knowing that they are likely to put off some students. But I have found that, at least in this instance, doing so tends to engage students and elicit enthusiastic participation from those who do not usually volunteer (especially Packers fans, even in Bears country).


[1]See, e.g., Steve P. Calandrillo & Joseph Davison, Standards of Review in Law and Sports: How Instant Replay’s Asymmetric Burdens Subvert Accuracy and Justice, 8 Harv. J. Sports & Ent. L. 1 (2017),; Kenneth Kilbert, Instant Replay and Interlocutory Appeals, 69 Baylor L. Rev. 267 (2017),; Russ VerSteeg & Kimberley Maruncic, Instant Replay: A Contemporary Legal Analysis, 4 Miss. Sports L. Rev. 153 (2015),; Mitchell N. Berman, Replay, 99 Cal. L. Rev. 1683 (2011),; Chad M. Oldfather & Matthew M. Fernholz, Comparative Procedure on a Sunday Afternoon: Instant Replay in the NFL as a Process of Appellate Review, 43 Ind. L. Rev. 45 (2009),; Aaron R. Baker, Replaying Appellate Standards of Review: The NFL’s “Indisputable Visual Evidence”: A Deferential Standard of Review, 16 Tex. Ent. & Sports L.J. 14 (2007),; S. Christopher Szczerban, Tackling Instant Replay: A Proposal to Protect the Competitive Judgments of Sports Officials, 6 Va. Sports & Ent. L.J. 277 (2007),; Bennett Liebman, Reversing the Refs: An Argument for Limited Review in Horse Racing, 6 Tex. Rev. Ent. & Sports L. 23 (2005),; Jack Achiezer Guggenheim, Blowing the Whistle on the NFL’s New Instant Replay Rule: Indisputable Visual Evidence and a Recommended “Appellate” Model, 24 Vt. L. Rev. 567 (2000),

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