VAR and the Search for Objectivity in an Increasingly Subjective World
The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and not LFC Tampa Bay.
By David Rice
What kind of person are you? What do you want from all of this? Why are we doing this?
It’s rare a piece of technology related to sport poses these types of existential questions for us, but lately, these are exactly the kind of questions I find myself asking.
This season has seen the introduction of the Video Assistant Referee into football, or VAR as we call it. And with its introduction has come a flurry of criticism about its implementation, what it’s doing to the game and whether it’s solving the problems it was supposedly put in place to fix.
Football has always been a subjective game. It is an entirely human endeavor and therefore, flawed and sometimes unfair, but beautiful nonetheless. It is like life in this sense and if you’re going to make it as a supporter of any team in the sport, you’re going to have swallow a heavy dose of tough luck every now and again. We’ve certainly had our share in recent years.
But VAR, for some, has offered an alternate reality in which this is not the case. In theory, it’s a reality where everything is fair, and all the injustices can be undone with a bit of careful reflection by people with the power to right crucial wrongs.
For the sake of focusing on some semblance of a point, I’ll try as best as I can to not talk about VAR’s implementation here, whether it’s being used properly or if I think it’s even necessary.
I’ll try to avoid the rule changes that have accompanied its arrival and the flawed thinking behind how VAR and these rules are being interpreted. There’s enough debate about all of this and what the point of VAR is. There’s even conspiracy theories that it has been put in place as it has to fail, a way for the leaders of the game to get rid of it without ever truly giving it a chance.
But for me, there is a bigger question we have to ask ourselves, arrive at an answer and move forward from there before we even assess the value of VAR.
The first part is to know yourself and recognize how your quirks influence your consumption of football, the way that you watch it and the way you feel as you do.
The second is to examine what it is you want from this situation. It’s essentially a combination of mentality and DNA. Are you glass half full or glass half empty mentality? Are you a left brain or right brain? I suppose that this is perhaps over simplifying things, but for a moment let’s assume we all fall along this spectrum somewhere and that it impacts our the way we see the game.
In theory, if you are the left brained person, you most likely want VAR and think it’s important for the game to be fair, the calls made and the rules that govern it precise. Decisions are black and white for you and errors in referee decision-making are a problem to be solved.
You have little sympathy for the nuances of play that lead to the calls, or for the human beings that make them. You recognize that the game is so entertaining that you’re willing to give up sunny afternoons and Saturday morning sleep-ins to watch it, but you want the laws of the game to prevail on a given day. This characterization is not to belittle that point of view or position. Quite the contrary, it’s a luxury we enjoy all this coverage and when you’re handing over loads of your time for it, I don’t blame you for wanting to not feel ripped off at the end of it.
But what do you want from all these hours of watching footy? Do you want memories? Celebrations? Redemption? Catharsis? Or something else?
On the other hand, you have the right brained crowd. These are typically considered to be the creatives, they love the nuance, the drama, the stories that come from controversy and perceived injustices. Their joy is found in the fluidity of the game, it’s beautiful imperfections. Damn the fine lines, the margins that call a chest hair offside and punish players for simply having hands.
Full transparency, I am one of these people. I enjoy the fact that football is a game played by humans. That humans make mistakes that are responsible for so much joy and suffering. At the same time, I am an optimist and have yet to consume a Premier League season in which I felt like things didn’t even out in the end. That my side was slighted to such an extreme that we didn’t end up exactly where we should have.
But the shift toward black and white, toward a more rigid structure filled with absolutes is part of a larger more subtle shift over time.
The game is now by default a defensive endeavor. The modern pro game is centered on defensive solidarity and tactical wherewithal. In his book Soccer in Sun and Shadow, author Eduardo Galeano reflects on the development of the game over time and how high scorelines were once fairly common, a time before organization and tactics ruled the day.
The shift toward the modern landscape is why the manager is a central figure and teams are spending as much on defenders these days as they are on attackers. But at its’ core, the elation that the game evokes has its foundations in chaos, in mistakes and fluidity, and in the margins being slightly flexible. As Galeano puts it, “football is a pleasure that hurts.”
The Chaos in Order
I used to play Sunday league with a guy who would always say that 90% of goals only occur because someone made a mistake or because one side lost control of the situation.
The left-brain crowd tends to not see it this way. To them, goals are carefully planned flashes of brilliance or complete defensive ineptitude, rarely something in between. The rules are a similar dichotomy for them. Offsides is offsides, a handball is a handball, intentional or not.
For them, everything is binary. Gray areas are dead, or in any case, it can’t be left to humans to decipher right from wrong in those instances. Here is an example from a recent MLS playoff match. Note: Ignore Carlos Vela’s positioning as he is not the recipient of the pass, so his position doesn’t matter according to the offside rule.
The tweet examines the play at such a level that this person is doing mathematical equations based on a photograph. It demands exactness from the linesman to know the precise moment the ball is hit and where the runner is at in that precise moment, though you could argue they don’t demand the same exactness from the technology, but I don’t want to stray too far here. I would just ask what are we talking about? It’s not even obvious in this photo, which is taken at a strange angle to the play, as the lines on the grass make clear.
The right sided brain says who cares? The benefit of the doubt goes to the attacker and it’s not clearly offside. Even if he is 1.5 inches off, is he gaining a clear advantage from that 1.5 inches? Dynamic attacking football is difficult to achieve, and here LAFC had done it. To take that away from them for the width of a nipple being offside is ridiculous.
Both types of people may have played or coached the game, both can be glass half empty or glass half full types. Such is the nuance of human behavior. I’d venture a guess that if you’re the type that likes black and white rules, but are a bit of a pessimist, you think the leagues are implementing VAR in a flawed manner intentionally, so that they create more drama, more layers of doubt around key decisions and therefore will be justified when they bin it.
If you’re a fan of gray areas and an optimist, maybe you see this whole thing coming to an end soon because in the end, VAR is not more objective, it’s only creating new layers of subjectivity.
Why are We Doing This?
The prevailing logic for implementing VAR is to create more accountability in the game, to undo bad officiating and to raise the level of fairness.
This isn’t a new desire for football fans by any means, but it has reached a fever pitch in recent years and this is where you have to bear with me, because I’m wondering why we’re all searching for extreme objectivity and fairness in a place it has never existed before. But perhaps the reason for this, like much of the rest of football, reflects the rest of our lives.
Look around at the world. Look at our situations, particularly here in the U.S. and that of the U.K. Our reality, shared or otherwise has entered a period in which objectivity has almost completely fell by the wayside. News outlets are full of talking heads shouting opinions or propaganda and good journalism is harder to come by than ethical diamonds.
Our reality, the very fabric of our existence has become subjective courtesy of phrases like alternative facts. Flat earth theory, chem trails, even rewriting history with Holocaust denials. You can live in your own subjective reality and thanks to social media, create an echo chamber where you only hear things from those who agree with and support you.
There’s no objectivity in politics and our work is often fueled by data mined to tell a story that may or may not reflect reality. In other words, our lives have become an exercise in subjectivity, of seeing what we want.
As we are prone to do, we are going in search of balance, in search of objectivity with its inherent order, facts and fairness, a ying to our increasingly bizarre yang.
It doesn’t take much to look around and see a large number of people feeling helpless in western society. We’ve seen on a large scale our rationale conquered by misinformation, our bonds squashed by division and ability to influence the world around us largely sold off or drowned out.
The climate is changing, our leaders corrupt, hate and contempt on the rise and we’re all going to work until we’re dead. So is it all that bizarre that some of us have turned to this one thing and demanded it be just how we want it? The last bastion of right results and fair play.
The question should be though, is this the right place to look for it?
The game is prone to accommodate our desires as its governing bodies attempt to please ever greater masses. They are attempting or considering things that they once would have scoffed at, be it orange cards and sin bins or continental super leagues. VAR is just the latest attempt to appeal to a larger audience, to make our greatest escape everything we want it to be, instead of what it is, a reflection of our subjective reality.
We know better than anyone in this country that instant replay, VAR, a challenge system, whatever you want to call it, is not infallible. It can be fooled and is at times rendered irrelevant. Ask the average fan of the NBA or NFL if the game is that much better than it was before. We don’t need to look further than this season and recent rule changes in American football to see that the frustration continues.
In the end, we have to accept that football, and in fact all sports, are a reflection of life. Look at the game around the world. Its coverage is full of talking heads spouting opinions, its leaders are corrupt and hate and contempt are on the rise.
Subjectivity in the game appears to be where we want to draw the line and I understand the spirit of it, despite seeing it as a fool’s errand. Cries for VAR are just our way of pushing to make the game a fantasy where objectivity thrives. It might just have to be something we work on until we’re dead.