Video Assisted Refereeing in Football: The False Idol of Mechanical Objectivity
“When phenomena are variously reduced to data, they are divided and classified, processes that work to obscure — or as if to obscure — ambiguity, conflict, and contradiction.” – Lisa Gitelman
Finally, the pseudo-objectivist logic of Big Data has seeped drearily into the world of professional football. The technological specter of Video-Assisted Refereeing (VAR) has been looming large for some time. Its most notable public exposure came during its somewhat muddled implementation during the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Perhaps more inherently suited to the increasingly commercialised nature of international football, it was reluctantly accepted as something experimental but hopefully transient. Now, however, upon its recent arrival into the English Premier League (EPL) – a league famously resistant to technological progress – the factual reality of VAR can be neither denied nor escaped.
Why do we have VAR?
Speaking with Bob Holmes in an interview for Edge Weekly, the secretary of the International Football Association Board (IFAB) – Lukas Brod – crystalised the whole discourse surrounding the introduction of VAR into the question, “…do we want to have 40 errors in a season or do we want to have one or two and accept some delays or misunderstandings?” (Holmes, 2019). The intention behind VAR is, quite simply, to reduce the number of refereeing mistakes that happen in football games. The VAR experiment, up until now, according to Brod has shown that “…those who play the game and watch the game – want more fairness, the right outcomes and referees want help”. (Holmes, 2019)
How does VAR work?
For the EPL, VAR HQ is situated in a neutral location (Stockley) and contains a roomful of screens and monitors – all of which present slow-motion replays and multi-angle shots for a selection of trained officials to analyse. According to the FIFA official website, VAR should only be called into action if the match officials have made a ‘clear and obvious error’ (FIFA, 2019) in one of these four areas: Goals, Penalties, Straight Red Cards and Mistaken Identity. The VAR process can also be reduced into three clearly demarcated stages: Incident, Review and Decision. (FIFA, 2019)
How does VAR relate to Big Data?
For many, the presence of VAR is entirely innocuous. The introduction of detailed data analysis allows for more scrutiny and fairer outcomes. However, to a more critical eye, it might seem that football has adopted the same logic of presumptive objectivity that has become so inimical to data collection and analysis in social research. VAR, reflected by its literal geographical isolation, has been continually presented as something detached, neutral and objective. Ostensibly, with the advantage of slow-motion replays we can finally eradicate the avoidable refereeing mistakes that so often break the hearts of fans and players alike. The capacity for retrospective micro-analysis has presented the footballing community with the idea that suddenly football might shed its highly subjective character.
The Problem with Mechanical Objectivity
Lisa Gitelman, in Raw Data is an Oxymoron, presents a very coherent critique of what she refers to as “mechanical objectivity” (Gitelman, 2013). In this piece, Gitelman reflects on the idea that “Data need(s) to be imagined as data to exist and function as such, and the imagination of data entails an interpretative base”(Gitelman, 2013). So, if the video footage being analysed in VAR HQ is conceived of as ‘data’, we need to try and get to the “root assumptions”(Gitelman, 2013) of what this data entails. In football, the assumption behind the analysis of video footage is a certain end; the pursuit of fairness, accuracy and truth. But what is the truth of football? If we try to think about why we watch football, it immediately becomes very difficult to distil it down to a certain guiding principle. It can’t just be the outcome; otherwise why would we bother watching the match? It can’t just be for the beauty, otherwise why would we care about who wins and who loses? Indeed, the ‘end’ of football is something that has been perennially and necessarily elusive to even its most ardent disciples.
The Incongruous Rationality of VAR
In his analysis on the relationship between science and sport, entitled Sport: a scientific experiment, Sigmund Loland writes that, “Science exists, in principle at least, for instrumental reasons: producing ‘certified’ and relevant knowledge. Sport is different. There is no systematic quest here for values outside of the activity” (Loland, 2018). It is at this juncture we can see so clearly the problem that VAR poses. The mere idea that football should be subject to a detached data analysis serves to project some kind of ‘systematic quest’ onto a sport that operates outside of rational and instrumental conventions. To use Gitelman’s term, the video data has been ‘cooked’ (Gitelman, 2013) insofar as it contains within it the assumption that outcomes need to or even can be ‘fairer’.
Who is Benefitting from the Root Assumptions of VAR?
The soul of football is anchored in chaos. Who benefits from a highly synthetic and imposed construct of ‘order’? Well, in an age where football finds itself at the whims of late-capitalism, it is the people at the top – for whom football is a matter of profit – who benefit most from the fetishisation of data analysis. In the words of Bruno Latour (2009), “Change the instruments, and you will change the entire social theory that goes with them”. VAR, then, marks a shift in the theoretical foundation of football. The presence of data allows certain parties to present a false objectivity that emboldens a capitalist narrative of order, rationality and accuracy. Henry Collins, an academic who helped in part to introduce VAR to football, noted that “ball-tracking companies” in tennis deliberately withhold information regarding how accurate their methods are “under the banner of commercial secrecy” (Collins, 2019). It’s clear – if we scratch underneath the data and the so-called objectivity, the subjective intent of corporations will always avail itself very quickly. The direction of football is now hopelessly entwined within the implicit demands of VAR – for better, or more likely – for worse.
FIFA, 2019 – https://football-technology.fifa.com/en/media-tiles/video-assistant-referee-var/
Holmes, Bob. “Business of Sports: EPL could decide if it’s a law too VAR”. The Edge Markets, The Edge Communications Sdn, 22/07/2019, https://www.theedgemarkets.com/article/business-sports-epl-could-decide-if-its-law-too-var?fbclid=IwAR2Qy71FOSknlSi6JooUj-9wHPUiAJ8EWKeun030_fPx2Gi_0J8aS6ho9IY
Gitelman, Lisa (ed.). “Introduction”. “Raw Data” Is an Oxymoron. Cambridge: MIT Press. (2013): 1-14.
Loland, Sigmund. Sport, a scientific experiment?, Sport in Society, Volume 22, Issue 9: The Blend of Science and Sport, Pages 1501-1511, Originally Published February 2018
Latour, Bruno. (2009) ‘Tarde’s idea of quantification’, in The Social after Gabriel Tarde: Debates and Assessments, ed. M. Candea, Routledge, London, pp. 145–162, CRITICAL QUESTIONS FOR BIG DATA 677
Collins, Henry. Applying Philosophy to Refereeing and Umpiring Technology, Philosophies, Creative Commons, 2019
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