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The Referee’s Decision is Final. Until it isn’t

Instant replay feeds our desire to know everything. But knowledge isn’t everything and technology can’t fix the real problem at play in sport – and in life.

3 mins

December 8, 2022

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The Football World Cup is a glorious contest, as I have here written before. But the ‘beautiful game’ has some ugly downsides: players arguing with the referee, shameless spates of play-acting and all kinds of attempts to deceive the match officials to gain an advantage.

These unseemly incidents undermine those moments when players are genuinely aggrieved when decisions don’t go their way. Just look at Antoine Griezmann, whose late equaliser against Tunisia for France in the latest World Cup was disallowed. Meanwhile, the German football team weren’t even on the pitch to protest the goal that knocked them out of the World Cup; they were knocked out by Japan’s second goal against Spain, when it looked a lot like the ball had left the field of play.

It’s hardly surprising that tempers boil over. In a World Cup so much is at stake: professional pride; the hopes of a nation; and a hefty transfer fee for players that do well. And those on-field injustices can linger for decades. Ask any English person about that ‘Hand of God’ goal by Argentina’s Diego Maradona that knocked England out of the 1986 World Cup.

For decades, TV coverage has been improving to the point where even the most casual observer of a sporting contest on TV has had a better view of the incident in question than the referee and players on the pitch. In America, the NFL has been making use of ‘instant replay’ since 1986. The Football World Cup resisted only until recently when VAR was introduced in the 2018 World Cup.

The job of the VAR (video assistant referee) is to constantly check “for clear and obvious errors”, especially with regard to goals, penalties and red cards. They have 42 cameras, eight of which are super slow motion and four of which are ultra slow motion.

Overall, decisions of referees have improved, going from 95.6% to 99.4% in the 2018 World Cup, although nine more penalties were awarded because of VAR intervention. So you might think that would be the end of that. 42 cameras will settle the argument. Why argue with the referee? Wait for the verdict (which takes, on average, 82 seconds) and on we go. Everyone’s happy.

Everyone is not happy. 99.4% is not 100%. Would more information have given more clarity on that Japanese goal against Spain? The referees were satisfied that just enough ball was in play for the goal to stand. Would more technically have helped? The next World Cup could give the VAR 60 cameras, 18 of which are super-slow motion and 10 of which are ultra slow. Would that end controversy?

We are beguiled by the idea that total knowledge will solve our problems. Aside from whether this is even possible, we need to ask ourselves what we do with knowledge. Provide two scientists with the same raw set of uncontested data, and they could easily draw two completely different sets of conclusions. These may be complementary. They may be contradictory. Facts don’t settle arguments. They start them.

We have witnessed this in our increasing polarised debates online where one side presents facts that they think makes their case unarguable. But no-one seems to change their mind, just as footballers and fans watching the VAR replay will continue to protest that their team was robbed.

The Christian faith is built on the story of this human desire to know everything. The serpent in the Garden of Eden tempted Eve to reach out and take the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. The promise was that she and her husband would become like God. There would be no more uncertainty. They would know everything. But it was a lie and it spread to the next generation. Eve’s son, Cain, fell out with his brother over an offering. God’s verdict found in Abel’s favour and Cain was not happy about it. He was even shown a yellow card by God, but he saw red and killed his brother.

What Adam, Eve and Cain lacked was discernment. They had knowledge, but not wisdom. Knowledge tells you what has happened and how. But wisdom tells you what is good or right. Our lack of knowledge is not our real problem. Watch any football match and you will see players barging, barracking, play-acting, diving and looking innocently at the referee. And you don’t need 42 cameras to see that.

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