Why is this interesting? - The Video Assistant Referee Edition

On sports, replay, and competitiveness

Ryan Anderson (RJA) is a marketing director based in Atlanta, GA (although he still tells everyone he is from Maine). At various points in his life, he has done much more interesting things like being a professional poker player and helping lead the grassroots fan movement that brought an MLS team to Atlanta. He also writes an irregularly published newsletter called Proper Tack that touches on all these topics and more.

Ryan here. Nothing has been more impactful for the trajectory of professional sports than television. TV contracts unleashed billions of dollars of revenue, turned local attractions into major brands, and made athletes into global icons.

Increased TV viewership led to increased investment in the production of broadcasts. We now have pre-game shows telling us what is going to happen, sideline reporters telling us what is happening, post-game shows telling us what happened, and an ever-increasing number of camera angles and overlays to keep us engaged. One second-order effect of this shift has been millions of people seeing the mistakes of referees and umpires. And some of them were pretty bad.

Sports, like most competitions, need rules to maintain order. When we think about those rules we tend to think of the big ones: A soccer ball that crosses over the sideline is out of bounds, a shot in basketball only counts if it’s made before the shot clock expires, and a football may only be thrown forward by a player who is behind the line of scrimmage. The beauty of these rules is that they’re all pretty simple and objective. For the most part, the rules of sport work this way to make it easier for both the players and those enforcing the rules to keep track of the action.

To that end, these objective rules made for a good way to introduce video review of close plays. The NBA, for instance, rolled out video review in 2002 as a way to ensure that a shot left a player’s hands before time expired. Tennis added its Hawk-Eye system in 2008, allowing players to challenge a certain number of line judge calls that they disagreed with. Humans are fallible, and replay can help ensure sports remain as fair as possible.

And that’s what all fans want, right? A true contest of athletics governed by the rules of the sport. Let the best team win.

Why is this interesting?

The answer, as you might have guessed, is no. Not all fans want that, and the current controversy around video assistant referee (VAR) in European football is the perfect example. One objective rule the English Premier League decided to tackle with VAR this season is the call of offside.

A quick primer on offside calls: For a player to be eligible to receive a pass, there must be at least two defending players between them and the goal. One of these defending players is almost always the goalie, so then you have to make sure at least one “outfield” defender is behind the attacker.

As anyone that grew up playing or watching the game knows, this is one of the trickiest calls to get right as you have to look across the whole field to judge whether the offensive player is even an inch past the furthest defending player. There’s an assistant referee on each side of the field whose primary job is to stay in line with the deepest defender and raise a flag if an offensive player being passed the ball is between that defender and the goal before the ball is kicked to them.

While this is a tough call to make in real-time, video review allows us to see rather definitively whether or not a player was offside at the time a pass was played. And, as you would expect, people hate it.

Their complaints typically boil down to one of two arguments

1. “The call still isn’t right”

Due to frame rates and video quality, video review for offside calls isn’t perfect. But even tennis’s Hawk-Eye system has a 0.5mm margin of error, and very rarely do fans or players complain about that. Plus, while it’s easy to cherry-pick the extremely close examples and argue that they were wrong, the vast majority of video reviews do provide a clear decision.

2. “Video review is ruining the game”

This is the one that best captures the anger fans have for VAR. Beyond the change in viewing experience (reviews disrupt play, which is especially jarring in a constant-motion sport like soccer), the precision the system allows referees feels unnatural. The argument from the most vocal fans isn’t that review ruins the game by changing correct decisions to incorrect ones, but rather that it adds an accuracy that goes beyond human perception and is, therefore, altering the shape of the game itself.

We accept that not every call will be accurate, just like we accept that not every putt in golf will get made. We accept the idea that “holding could get called on every play in the NFL if the officials wanted” because not calling every hold makes the sport watchable. We are also generally confident that the most egregious examples will almost always get penalized, which makes the game as fair as it needs to be.

If leagues wanted 100% accuracy on objective rules, they could move to fully automating those calls. For instance, tennis could let Hawk-Eye automatically call every shot, or Major League Baseball could have a robot call balls-and-strikes (which, by the way, would speed up the game while removing 14 missed calls per game). 

But fans don’t want perfectly objective sports, particularly if it comes at the expense of feeling like the players are deciding who wins. It’s the same reason strike zones expand in close baseball games, and fewer fouls are called in the final two minutes of an NBA playoff matchup. The rules don’t change in those scenarios, but those enforcing them recognize the import of the moment and try to allow play to occur in as pure a form as possible. The backlash against VAR seems to be centered on the unnatural level of precision it adds to the game, going beyond what the players on the field can perceive. Fans watch sports to see athletes decide outcomes. And when it comes down to the imperceptible, we want things to stay a little blurry. (RJA)

Baseball Explainer GIF of the Day:

An overlay of Charlie Morton’s 94MPH fastball and 80MPH curveball (via Rob Friedman)

For everyone who has ever asked “How could he swing at that?!” (RJA)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Ryan (RJA)


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