Time, Digitisation, and Human Effort: an existentialist perspective on VAR

[This talk was supposed to have been delivered at the EAPS (European Association for the Philosophy of Sport) Meeting at Paris-Sorbonne in April. Then Covid-19. Since I’m unlikely to be going anywhere for some time, it is here.]

Public debates about the value or execrableness of VAR seem to coalesce around two main issues: fairness or accuracy and the loss of spontaneity. While it seems reasonable to assume that no one seriously disputes the fairness principle, that supposes that we agree on how it is to be attained and applied. I will talk about three issues here: accuracy in the means we use to ensure fairness, the difference between events and action, and what is usually referred to as “spontaneity” and what it has to do with meaning.

I: Accuracy
First, the issue of fairness and the accuracy of the means employed to enforce it. The fairness that is of concern here is unfair, i.e., illegal, but not necessarily unearned, advantage. Illegal advantages usually constitute either some kind of cheating (PEDs, diving) or play that would be nullified if spotted (handball, etc), but also ones that are unintentional rule violations. For example, it may be that no one profits from the continued play of a ball that is fractionally over the line, whether as a result of deliberate play or because a gust of wind blows it out of play, but constitutive rules must be enforced if play is to remain coherently play of a particular type. Much as we might complain that, really, it makes no concrete difference whether a coxswain is a gram too light or a player a day over the age limit, we can’t do without rules in sport nor without an even-handed application of them: niggly calls are the sacrifices we make to the gods of play to allow us to keep playing.

All that being said, questions have been raised about whether the means commonly employed to regulate violations of the rules of play are all that they are cracked up to be. Harry Collins and Robert Evans have argued (Public Understand. Sci. 17 (2008) 283–308) that technological tracking devices such as Hawk-Eye are not nearly as accurate as they are generally assumed to be. More recently, Collins (2020) has put forward a working paper that makes claims about the digitisation of judgement different to but not wholly unrelated to ones that I will present here.

Devices like Hawk-Eye, goal-line technology, and VAR are ostensibly all meant to provide objective certainty for different kinds of officiating situations, in place of the presumed subjective uncertainty of human judgement. It is important to acknowledge that there are two very different kinds of situation for which these aids are thought useful: those that are ready-digitised, as it were, i.e., for which a yes/no decision is appropriate (what Collins calls discontinuous events), and those that are less easily digitised because they are continuous events or actions. Whether a ball is in or out, a goal scored or not, fall into the former category. As Collins argues, recent discussion about the merits of VAR have tended to treat offside as belonging to this category although it should not.

I do not have the time, nor the expertise, to discuss many of the details of Collins’ analysis. I will here limit myself to two issues that I draw from this. First, the understandable, laudable, and yet confused desire for accuracy and, second, what seems to me to amount to a kind of category mistake. Given the assumption that sport has to incorporate fairness as a regulatory principle, calls must be fairly given, and this would certainly seem to require that they be accurate: goals must really be scored in accord with the rules, as must fouls be awarded, and so on. But if Collins’ analysis is correct, the technological fixes we employ in order to attain that certainty are, in fact, fundamentally probabilistic and, as such, subject to a margin of error. No matter how useful it may be, If a device such as VAR has an error factor of 25cm, it cannot be used to make 1cm discriminations, as has recently and notoriously been the case.

Secondly, if an event can be judged “digitally”, that is, as on/off, yes/no, and if the technology were as true to reality as it is often touted to be, it might well make sense to use it. A very large problem looms, however, for events that cannot be so judged. Collins refers to these as continuous events (which include offside in football). These events, he contends, require an official’s judgement, not least because they require a weighing of the relative importance of different factors: they are not binary [2020, 44]. Attempting exact measurement here would be a mistake; reasonable doubt and transparency in the basis of judgement is what is appropriate.

II: Actions
Collins refers to “continuous events”; I would like us to think about this in terms of actions. The rotation of the earth is a continuous event but not an event of the kind that interests us here. Similarly, a piece of chalk rolling across a table, falling to the floor, and breaking apart is an event, but while my pitching that piece of chalk at a student busy with his phone is an event, unlike the previous example, it is also an action. I take an action to be, not just the interaction of objects and natural forces, but a sequence of events put into motion as a consequence of deliberate, if at times negligent, human intention. Thus, there is something I want to do and I move myself (“act”) so as to bring that state of affairs into being. In doing so, I may also do or participate in the causing of other intentional and unintentional events. Sports are dynamic interactions of both events and actions; if actions were not involved we would not call them sports. So, the movement of a ball or a puck is an event, but its significance is as part of an action–a sequence of physical events intentionally initiated by and intersecting with human movements.

One thing that follows from this is that the same objective events could be components of quite different actions. For example, the brilliant interception of a scoring chance and the utterly failed attempt to reduce an opponent could be described by the same set of physical events; what makes them different is, in part and importantly, what the agent actually set out to do. In the case of sport, we may often need to be clear about whether what we are seeking to control are actions or events. There seems no more apt, and contentious, case than hand ball in football. In contrast to the previous example, suppose that during a contested sequence of play in his own penalty area, a defender attempts to jump higher than an attacker in order to head the ball away. The incoming pass, however, hits the defender’s arm. Let us also suppose that the defender has his arm by his side and his body turned away from the incoming ball. In the 2018 World Cup, such a scenario resulted in a VAR determined penalty against Denmark. Whether a goal is scored or not is an event. For (at least some) penalties, it seems that we need to assess an action and not only an event. Hence, referees frequently wave off claims for penalties, presumably as not meeting the threshold of culpable action, although many penalties can be legitimately claimed without any question of intent, e.g., intent to clear out an attacking player although what the player does do has that outcome, as (further) in a case where a goalkeeper’s attempt to grab a low drive results in the attacker being bowled over.

My purpose here is not to dispute the specific rules of football, but to question the way in which football officiating and commentary appears to concentrate attention on actions/events in abstract isolation from the circumstances in which they are generated. The issue is whether those who make the calls in sport look at events as simple physical events when they should be looking at actions. This may be a matter of taking into account a player’s intention when that matters in the adjudication of a rule, but what I am most concerned to stress here is that many actions can only be understood as actions if they are understood in context, which is to say, as embedded in a sequence of actions and interactions that can only have significance in relation to intentional movement, rather than objective measurement. To recycle my earlier simplistic example, are we more interested on measuring chalk falling off tables or professors throwing it at students? So, for handball or certain other kinds of fouls, where we do need to take intention into account, i.e., whether a player attempted to do something, multiple slow motion replays of whether a ball struck an arm, or their studs made contact with another player before or after touching the ball, really misrepresents the meaning of what the player did as an action, rather than an event.

The other important aspect of this question of actions has to do with their temporal direction, and to this I turn next.

III: Spontaneity
One persistent complaint about VAR is that it kills the spontaneity of the game: a goal is apparently scored and no one in the stadium knows whether they can celebrate or not. Instead, all must endure some interminable wait for the decision aye or nay. While I do not deny the frustration that this may entail, I think the objection is in some important ways misconceived in a way that the previous discussion partly addresses. More fundamentally, however, the spontaneity objection relies too heavily on the immediacy of emotional flow, taking for granted the circumstances that make it possible.

There are two elements here that I particularly want to draw out: (i) that our lives and actions have a temporal directionality which is not repeatable, and (ii) that real world actions and events have persistent costs, both in terms of the effort required to perform them and in terms of their effects on ourselves and others. With regard to the first, events can frequently, as events, be isolated from their contexts. The chalk rolling off the table does not need to be understood as something that could only have happened at a specific point in time (or in my life): given the same objective conditions, the same sort of event could be expected to occur in the same way. My throwing the chalk at a student is significantly different because it is the playing out of a subjective process that includes the meaning that I attribute to the situation and my response to it. If I were to repeat this action, my second chalk-throwing incident would be importantly different because I and my conscious appreciation of the circumstances (including the likely consequences) must be different–and I shall be blamed more for it because of this. “Groundhog Day” stories depend on their protagonists being subjected only in a limited respect to repeating events; their actions (because they are conscious) are constrained by the events into which they are condemned, but they continue to move forward because of their own developing awareness of their situation. If this were not so, there would be no point at all to the story.

When it comes to any given play in sport, because it is the result of a conscious intention and effort applied to the carrying out of that intention, strict repetition is out of the question. Each 100m race is its own event, not a simple duplicate, because it is run by conscious beings, altered by the experience of each preceding race. This is even more so in a dynamic game, such as football, where the conditions are in responsive flux. What this means is that an interrupted play cannot realistically be resumed or re-played as the same or a continuation of the original play. This is not an argument against calls that interrupt play, though it may be a reason to avoid them where there are other options. Rather, it is a reason for not reviewing, and interpreting, such plays as if they are events that can be properly understood in isolation. This is particularly relevant for handball calls, where the review appears to be concerned only with whether the ball contacted a defender’s arm, leaving out of account what the defender was attempting to do. As Collins points out, this is a tendency to digitise as on/off events that are properly continuous, and thus properly subject to an informed adjudication to a level of reasonable doubt rather than certainty. More simply, whether it was a foul depends on what the player was attempting to do and what others were doing around him or her that affected what the player did. Offside is a more complex case than hand ball but seems to me to be subject to the same objections; rather than the digitised view of violation, it seems to make more sense to allow the referee to make an informed decision that includes his or her judgement concerning advantage, intent, and interference. The digitising interpretation, then, is a distortion of the facts of the case that frequently leads to an unjust or wrong decision.

My second point (ii) concerns the cost in human effort of sport and is closely allied to the first point concerning temporal direction and nonrepeatability. It is why sport is fundamentally different to digital game-playing. Unlike the digital representation of a world, such as a videogame incorporates, physical games are full of actual physical costs. Sport, however, perhaps definitionally, is an activity that expressly involves the use of one’s body in a way that tests one’s physical persistence in that activity, not just in the possibility of injury, but simply in output to the point of fatigue and then past that point. It is about the willingness to continue the race or the game although one’s throat is parched, one’s muscles burning almost unbearably, and although one knows how much better it would feel to just stop. Sport tests one’s willingness to sustain a genuine physical cost in a dynamic environment in which each choice one makes is relative to a changing set of conditions and in which one must choose to act in singular ways now and without any option to re-do this moment. I do not state these points as any kind of objection to sport–it is what sport is and it is an important part of why we engage in it, because it promises us meaning. What I do now is meaningful because I cannot do this moment again and yet commit to it, even if play restarts and I have to attempt to make that pass or draw again. [A hockey face-off is actually an excellent example here, as I may do the same basic movement but every circumstance in which it occurs is slightly altered as my teammates and opponents also adjust to each other.] I have to play as if I will never be able to do this move or live this moment again. Similarly, sport also forces us to make decisions about our interactions with others that have real consequences: to hit and perhaps damage someone, to put oneself in harm’s way or not, to cheat, to let someone else carry the burden. An athlete has real choices to make, ones that affect others and the game environment as a whole, and that are not reversible.

So, with sport as with ordinary life, our existence occurs in a temporally bounded context of physical and interpretative relations, from which it obtains meaning and which carries the further consequence that our actions and experiences are at a fundamental level not repeatable. As an earlier part of this discussion suggested, this means that whether my action is generous or malicious, brilliant or idiotic, depends on a complex web of interpersonal relations and the frameworks against which we interpret those relations.

What does this have to do with the charge that VAR drains games of spontaneity? The short answer here could be: “everything”, since spontaneity refers in part to the sense of emotional immersion that we have in action, including that of others whom we observe. For philosophical reasons, I would suggest that a better term in this context is “contemporaneity”. This is a term that Kierkegaard frequently uses to capture the demand that we need to not merely consider our relation to historical events as settled, but to live them ourselves, to ground, each of us, our own existence in a contemporaneous awareness of what that event was actually like for those who lived it then. If it matters to us then we need to know what it was to live it for those who did. This is, for Kierkegaard, a reflective act that requires a deliberate undertaking by the individual that eventuates in decision; it isn’t only (though it certainly involves) emotional immersion. Thus, to understand the meaning of an historical action of significance, I need to understand situation and intention. I cannot possibly do this by mere measurement or by isolating objective events from their context as human actions. To do so is to render them meaningless.

It would seem that contemporaneity is a vanishing art of human existence. Olympic athletes filming their own procession through opening and closing ceremonies suggests either a healthy skepticism about the stuff and bombast of such events or a failure to distinguish between the digital representation of reality and reality itself. Again, the latter of these suggests a flattening of meaning between contemporaneous immersion and the remote objective gaze of mediated representation. Given how common is the phenomenon of people attending live events but only watching through their phones, alienation from the experience of events with singular meaning seems widespread–as if the event never happened or didn’t mean anything unless it can be transferred to digital media and disseminated for review at will.

So, what I am suggesting here is that the dismay that the current state of VAR use in football provokes has much to do with this draining of meaning out of the human activity of football, just as we increasingly see an alienation from the immediacy of embodied intention and meaning in general. VAR seems utterly pointless, at least in part, because if what matters are things like whether there is a digital representation of whether a toe is in the wrong place rather than whether someone had deliberately gained an unfair advantage, then the playing of the game by players seems to be made redundant. Neither we nor the officials are watching the game, they are watching the mediated representation of a game having occurred. In that case, we’d be better off watching esports instead–and that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

©Leslie A. Howe (April 2020)