By BEN WRIGHT
The Video Assisted Referee (VAR) first ruined rugby. Now it’s ruining football. I don’t mean so much as sport. I mean more as cultural expressions, human moments. We love sport because we identify with it – played by humans, watched by humans, governed by humans. Like a poem or a memoir, it is a distillation of life that we recognise in our experiences. It can be infuriating, beautiful, painful, and unjust. It is full of skill, skullduggery, accuracy and mistakes. But the pain and the errors are what make it human. VAR is never wrong. That’s why it is rarely right. It is inhuman. Like steroids (or gaudy away-strips) it has no place in sport.
I want to be clear as to why VAR has to go, because there’s a lot of unhinged thinking around the issue. Obviously, we all hate it when it goes against our team and appreciate it when it goes our way. That sort of nimbyistic hypocrisy is innate to all of us, including me. I wish we’d had VAR for Frank Lampard’s equalising goal against Germany in 2010. I’m not so keen on it when it comes to Neil Back’s moment of genius against Munster in 2002. But these are parochial concerns. The problem is what it does not to our games but to the game.
I’ll preface with rugby. Over the last few years, I’ve all but stopped watching it. (Full disclosure: I’m a Leicester Tigers fan, which might have something to do with it as well.) I’ve been going to Welford Road since I was eight. I stopped going in 2000 when I left Leicester for London. I now live in Texas. But I’ve always kept up, watching every game I can, online, by hook or by crook. The slow creep of professionalisation started in the mid-2000s. You could see it in the way a new generation of players talked to the referee more than to each other, in the way coaches blamed the referees for everything. It used to be frustrating when referees made mistakes – but before the money poured in, rugby was essentially about honour, and doing one and one’s community proud. If one lost honorably, honour remained. Professionalisation changed this. Millions of dollars now hang on referees’ decisions and any market has a bias toward machinery. VAR is mechanisation. “It’ll make the game fairer,” people said. “It’ll fix errors,” we nodded. Arguing against this was like arguing against motherhood or apple pie.
And so the errors were fixed. The humans, moved aside and the game’s humanity has been disrupted. Before VAR, even the most pedantic referee struggled to punctuate a rugby game’s flow. (And if they did, the crowd gave them hell.) Now, even the best referees are constantly stopping the game to “go upstairs,” often at the request of the players. Was it a high tackle? Was their intention? Did he hit the shoulder first and roll up on to the chin? What is the new directive? Did he ground the ball? It’s like watching a courtroom reality show. It’s like watching Formula One – if Formula One were constantly interrupted by speed gun wielding traffic cops.
But the game is fairer. So why are we left with a sense of injustice and frustration? This is where football comes in. The truth was made crystal clear during the 2019 Women’s World Cup. First, there is a natural gap we all entertain between “what the rules are” and “how they should be enforced.” In fact, a true sense of human fairness relies on such an elasticity. That gap is the feeling you feel when you realise you’re accidentally doing 85mph on the highway and slow down right before you pass a camera. “Phew!” It’s the feeling you get when the server gives three sausages instead of two. The opposite is true as well. Injustice is when the gap snaps shut – when you get a ticket for driving at 33 in a 30 zone, or when the school district send you a citation for three tardies in a 30-day period. And when your player is marginally – marginally – offside and VAR proves it. Sport isn’t supposed to be fair. It is supposed to be respite from the banalities of petty power.
Like bad theology, VAR is petty rather than wise, accurate rather than fair. Things must never be left to “even out” over the course of time. They must be ceaselessly nitpicked. Justice must triumph over mercy. We must bow to the letter of the law, even above the protests of the spirit of the law. This is key because the rules of the game exist only to allow it to be played. By constantly, perfectly enforcing the rules, the game ceases. Instead, we all wait around while the little bureaucrat in the box chooses whether or not to authorise our celebration or consternation.
This too is key. VAR turns cultural spectacles into expressions of social control. Exhibit A: players at the Women’s World Cup. More than once, when someone scored, they looked not to their teammates or their supporters, but to the referee, who in turn held her hand to her ear in order to commune with the little bureaucrat in the box. “It is okay? May we celebrate? Have we made sufficient tribute to the idols of accuracy and technology?” Now read the sports section of the newspaper. What do you find? Stories about players? Teams? No – VAR, referees, injuries. This has become the story. It used to be about us.
Sport is both culture and a reflection of it. Our sports today speak to the ascendancy of politics and economics over culture. They speak to our immature relationship with the concepts of truth and fairness. Perhaps they speak to even bigger shifts in the Western world that have been going on for 200 years – away from the moment to the market, from the unpredicted and uncontrolled, toward data and consistency. From prowess to policing. What if the same force that puts us in a cubicle for 8-10 hours a day has permeated those 80 or 90 sacred minutes on the field? Meanwhile, the planet warms – check the data, utilise the technology – but no one heeds that. What a shame. Unlike with sport, there will be no replay.
Ben Wright is researcher and writer based in Austin, Texas. He thinks VAR works quite well in cricket.