Monday 14 October 2019

Television review: Still crashing the same VAR

  • Champions League (Virgin One)

Hand ball .... PSG defender Presnel Kimpembe was penalised for handball inside the area
Hand ball .... PSG defender Presnel Kimpembe was penalised for handball inside the area
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

Television has "owned" sport for a long time now. And it's been a tremendous deal all round, with the top 10 audience figures for each year usually consisting of about nine sporting events and perhaps one other programme that was made about the events in question.

It is astonishing to recall that sport used to be highly suspicious of television, with football associations in particular worrying that nobody would come to the game if it was on TV, unaware that in times to come, the gate receipts would comprise a small percentage of the money which the game would generate in TV revenue.

Indeed the crowd at a match can sometimes seem like mere extras in what is essentially a TV event, there to fill the seats so that it will all look better to the real crowd sitting at home.

But the VAR is pushing it to another level again. The Video Assistant Referee first came to serious prominence last year during the World Cup, and since then it has raised all sorts of issues not just about the relationship between sport and television, but about the meaning of modern life itself.

It shouldn't really be controversial at all - by stopping the game to look at a TV replay of an important incident, the referee is merely availing of a facility that millions of viewers at home have had for decades.

Why shouldn't the most important viewer of the game, the referee, be able to look at a replay of something he may have been unable to see clearly in the heat of the action?

This is especially true of decisions such as offside, which to the naked eye are so difficult. Why not indeed use the technology, just as it has been used for ages in tennis or cricket and now even hurling, with 'Hawkeye'?

So I am basically in favour of the VAR, and yet like so many smart technologies, while it is offering a solution to certain kinds of human weakness, it is exposing other kinds in ways that were never intended.

It is now feared that referees will be less decisive, less focussed on getting it right with their own eyes, when they have access to this ass-covering mechanism. And even then we are starting to see this very strange development, whereby a decision may be technically right when it is reviewed in slow motion on VAR, yet it is not actually right.

In a recent Champions League game, we watched the referee watching the slow motion replays which showed that strictly speaking, a handball had occurred, and Man United should be given a penalty, yet in real life it was so hard to call, it would almost never have been given.

And since the game was supposedly taking place in real life, at real speed, rather than in slow motion on a screen, we seemed to be entering this new zone in which the TV version of the game was being deemed superior to the game itself.

This is fascinating stuff, and not just for students of sport, but for modern philosophers of all kinds - one could imagine a Susan Sontag writing a terrifyingly intelligent treatise on VAR, and how it elevates the illusion to a place beyond the reality.

And by the way, though it may be theoretically more accurate, somehow it can still give you the wrong result.

Its haters said that VAR would stop the arguments which have always enlivened the game, and that this is bad, because people love to debate such controversies - but personally if my team was to be denied a trophy by a terrible decision, if it's all the same to you, I would prefer if that decision was reversed, rather than to engage in an argument about it.

Yes on the whole, if you offered me that choice between the trophy and the argument, there wouldn't be much of a contest there.

Anyway it looks like they're still going to have their arguments for a long time to come, they will just be different arguments, about a different kind of poor decision-making.

Not even VAR can tidy up the loose ends of the human condition.

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