media theory and the Video Assistant Referee (VAR)

For the American sports fan, the instant replay is a familiar feature of our viewing experience. The use of replays in the NFL actually goes back to 1986 and has been steadily employed for 20 years. I think it’s about the same for the NBA and even MLB has used it for a decade to some degree. For soccer/football though, VAR is a recent phenomenon, and this is the first year it has been implemented in the English Premier League (EPL). Not surprisingly, as with its implementation in other sports, this has resulted in a fair amount of controversy.

So as not to rehash the debates of sports journalists, podcasts, and fan forums, my interest here is in thinking about this from the perspective of media theory. And here, we can really go back to Walter Benjamin

Clearly, it is another nature which speaks to the camera as compared to the eye. “Other” above all in the sense that a space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space informed by the unconscious. Whereas it is a commonplace that, for example, we have some idea what is involved in the act of walking (if only in general terms), we have no idea at all what happens during the split second when a person actually takes a step. We are familiar with the movement of picking up a cigarette lighter or a spoon, but know almost nothing of what really goes on between hand and metal, and still less how this varies with different moods. This is where the camera comes into play, with all its resources for swooping and rising, disrupting and isolating, stretching or compressing a sequence, enlarging or reducing an object. It is through the camera that we first discover the optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis.

“The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility,”

To this we might add Lev Manovich’s argument (in The Language of New Media and elsewhere) that the introduction of digital cinema moves us away from the indexical quality of film. This is significant for VAR as many of its key decisions (offsides especially) are achieved by manipulating the image, drawing lines on it and so on.

All of this is basically to say that commonly we understand the video camera as capturing reality in some unproblematic and unmediated fashion, which is self-evidently not the case. To the contrary, as the Benjamin passage suggests, VAR introduces us to a “reality” that is only available to humans via mediation.

Let’s keep that bit in mind while I add another layer. The two main areas of controversy involve the offsides rule and the adjudication of the handball rule. I’ll hold off on the specifics for the moment. The key point is that we’re talking about a sport that operates according to arbitrarily established rules. E.g., is it true the Sterling is “offsides” in the image above? That depends on the rule. The rules, obviously, were created on the basis of human perception: i.e., does the assistant ref standing on the touchline see and judge that the attacking player has received the ball from an offside position? The notion of human perception and judgment is implied. Perception and judgment have been even more integral to handball calls where inadvertent handballs are not fouls… except (this year) when the ball comes off an attacking player and leads “directly” to a goal. “Directly” is a little murky for me. It’s not just “it bounces off my arm and goes straight into the net.” It also seems to be it inadvertently brushes my sleeve, doesn’t change direction, and ends up at the foot of my teammate who then scores (or maybe passes to another player who scores?). It’s hard to know how far causation goes here.

The causation matter also raises other possible problems. The Sterling case, where the player is deemed offside as he scores is fairly straightforward. But what if a player is similarly offside (by a few millimeters only detectable by VAR) but receives the ball upfield. His team holds onto possession of the ball for 30-60 seconds, passing it around, before someone who is clearly onside scores? VAR only comes into play for goal scoring events, but how far back will they go?

I view these as rhetorical concerns. It’s not simply an empirical decision, even if we can imagine these digitally reconstructed events as “simply empirical.” There is some question of justice, perhaps, though if the rule is applied the same to all, then that’s reasonably just. I would say it is, more complicatedly, about affect, about how we feel about the game. These rules are basically the same as they’ve always been. It is only the introduction of technology that has altered their application.

Here Raheem Sterling (with the red dotted line extending from his armpit) is fractionally offside as the ball is slipped through for him to score.

I am not a Manchester City fan. I’d have been happy, in fact, to see West Ham beat them on the day Sterling is called offside. As it turns out, that goal wouldn’t have been a factor on the day in terms of outcome. The rule as it is written and the implementation of VAR as has been established were both correctly applied. But it didn’t feel right to me. And perhaps it’s just a matter of becoming used to the new rule. On the other hand though, the rule could be rewritten and/or the procedures of VAR could be shifted.

So let me put these two things together. First, a game is an aesthetic-rhetorical experience. How we feel about it matters as much as anything else. Everyone knows what offsides and handballs are. We disagree on calls, in part because we are rooting for one team over another, but also because we see things differently as humans, even in slow motion. What we don’t want are bad/missed calls that everyone who isn’t biased by a rooting interest can clearly see, even at full speed in a replay with the right angle.

Second, the introduction of VAR adds a layer of mediation. It opens a new material space. You can call it empirical if you want as long as you’re willing to understand empirical as constructed. It changes the information and experience of the game. I don’t think we want the game regulated by information and experiences that are unavailable to human eyes in real time. But if we are going to do that, then I think we need to change the rules to acknowledge that we are shifting the mechanisms of perception.

Of course once we start doing that, things get really difficult and potentially contentious. E.g. for offsides VAR decisions, the attacking player needs to be 5cm beyond the last defender. Then we really have changed the offsides rule. But my point is that by adding VAR we already have and we at least need to acknowledge the game is different.

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