The Philosophy of VAR
Morgan Wellington- Guest Writer
Since its inception in the domestic game VAR (Video Assistant Referee) has been a controversial and highly discussed topic by pundits and players alike and has arguably become the most polarising issue among football fans since Brexit. And following in its footsteps, there has been much confusion as to what VAR actually means, leading to discussions about VAR being rife with misunderstanding and bold assumptions which may or may not hold up to scrutiny. This article will seek to establish a rudimentary account of VAR’s underlying philosophies and tease out some of the questions it raises that strike at the very heart of what football is, so as to provide a framework for more productive discussions in the future.
There are a wide variety of arguments for and against VAR, and a problematic feature of these discussions is that, more often than not, the opposing sides differ in their understanding of what VAR is claiming to do, what VAR is capable of doing, or what VAR actually is doing. Let’s identify the possible goals VAR could claim to have. VAR supporters often cite the statistics that pre-VAR only 93% of refereeing decisions were correct, but with VAR this number rises to 98.9%, which would be around an 85% reduction in incorrect decisions. This argument assumes that VAR’s intention is to reduce the number of incorrect decisions – this is our first, and most commonly assumed, possible goal. Alternatively, we can look at the use of the term ‘clear and obvious error’ in Law 5.4 of the IFAB Rules, this suggests that VAR is a method of accountability for the on-field referee if and when they are to make a significantly poor decision – this is our second possible goal. Finally, there is the possible goal of VAR as a method of adjudication where VAR is a tool to be used by the match officials in order to make better, more informed decisions at key points in the game, this can be seen in VAR’s use for ‘serious missed incidents’ and most obviously in the use of the pitch side monitor to review key decisions.
The question remains: which of these things is VAR actually doing? As when criticising VAR, it is important that we aren’t assuming it to be doing something which it isn’t if that criticism is to be valid. A popular criticism of VAR is that it attempts to make the adjudication of football matches more ‘objectively correct’ but that this is contradictory to the inherently subjective nature of these decisions. This assumes that VAR takes as its objective the first of our three goals, a reduction of incorrect decisions, and as such VAR fails to fulfil its objectives as the decisions the referee makes cannot be more objectively correct. However, this criticism does not show that VAR fails, merely that this cannot be what VAR is intending to do. It actually touches on an issue in legal theory that H.L.A. Hart identifies in The Concept of Law where he claims that all rules have, by nature, an ‘open texture’ meaning they have what he labels a ‘core’ and a ‘penumbra’. What this means is that every rule will have a settled core of circumstances in which the rule applies, but beyond that there will exist a penumbra of uncertainty in which exist all the circumstances that may or may not be covered by the rule. In the context of football this can be demonstrated in the case of red cards for bad challenges: two-footed challenges are within the settled core and will always warrant red cards. However, there are various reasons why a non-two-footed challenge may warrant a red card and a large number of these tackles will exist within the penumbra of the rule that says sufficiently bad challenges are to be punished with a red card. This uncertainty is inherent in every rule whether it be a legal rule or a rule of football due to their open texture, so it simply isn’t possible for VAR to establish objectively correct standards to reduce incorrect decisions because in some circumstances it isn’t possible to deem a decision objectively correct or incorrect.
Therefore, this critique of VAR doesn’t hold, but is still useful as it shows that the goal of VAR must be to act as a method of accountability and/or as a tool for decision making. As noted, both of these aims seem present in different aspects of VAR’s usage, furthermore they are both consistent with the existence of a penumbra. The term ‘clear and obvious error’ which indicates VAR acts as accountability for the on-field referee can be understood as correcting decisions where it lies within the settled core and on-field referee has either missed the incident or treated it as a penumbral case. More simply, it acts as a check on the reasonableness of the decision. If the decision is reasonable then it is either a correctly decided core case or a penumbral case which is open to a degree of interpretation, whereas if the decision is unreasonable then it is a clear and obvious error and the mistake is held to account and overturned. Hence accountability is a valid and actual goal of VAR. A similar analysis can be made of the goal of VAR and the pitch side monitor as a tool of adjudication, where VAR becomes a supplementary tool that the match officials can use if there is significant doubt over a decision or if a particular incident has been missed. The effect of this would be to increase the pedigree of decisions as more information is made available to decide penumbral cases that arise at significant points in the match.
It is unclear whether VAR sets itself out as aiming to either be a method of accountability or a decision-making tool, as these goals both overlap in theory and in practice. Crawford outlines the case for VAR as accountability, but the lack of specificity of the rules upon VAR’s use and the lack of transparency in its actual use contribute to making it somewhat difficult to pin it down to a position. It may indeed aim to be both, but in which case it must be clear when it will be used in one capacity and when it will be used in another. This is an example of a critique of VAR that attacks VAR for what it is, it acknowledges its intended goals and finds fault in the execution of achieving these goals. It is procedural criticisms such as this which often underlie the claims that VAR is confusing and certainly tangential to its issues of presentation to the fans, particularly those present in the stadium. However, alongside these procedural criticisms which are generally philosophically unproblematic, there is also a set of more difficult criticisms which hold VAR in violation of ‘the good of the game’ which shall be considered ‘value criticisms’.
Value critics are those that claim VAR ‘ruins the flow of the game’ or express concerns about the future of ‘the beautiful game’. These criticisms are not necessarily misunderstanding VAR, but instead make strong philosophical assumptions about the nature of the laws of football. Simply citing ‘the good of the game’, in whatever form that is expressed, as a point against VAR is not enough, because such a claim comes laden with an underlying assumption of what ‘the good of the game’ is. The complexities of this can be explored by analysing the claim of one critic that “[Fans] are not able to fully appreciate every goal anymore”. It is possible that this claim could be referencing the increase in the amount of goals that are ruled out due to VAR, or the dulling effect on the fans enjoyment due to having to wait for confirmation of some goals. In the case of the former, a very bold claim is made that the rules of football are relative to whether or not it is conducive to enjoyment as it assumes that a goal has been scored and that the rules as written are wrong if they rule it out. This is a very tricky position to hold, and the counter position that the rules establish what is and isn’t a goal and are merely evaluated by whether they are conducive to enjoyment is a far more agreeable place to start. This is indeed the point from which the latter claim begins, but there are still more assumptions to unpick. For this to be a criticism of VAR’s presence in the rules of the game it must establish (or at least argue) both that the enjoyment of fans is relevant to what the rules should be and that there is a general consensus as to what makes the game enjoyable.
At the end of the day, the rules of football are there to allow for a football match to be played by the players on the pitch, so it is a highly controversial position to suggest that the enjoyment of fans should have a direct impact upon the actual rules of the game which the players are subject to. It may indeed be generally agreed that this is the case, but this argument has to be explicitly made and predominantly agreed before the fan experience can be used as a criticism of VAR as part of the laws of the game and not just the presentation of VAR to the fans (it should also be noted that in such a discussion, the enjoyment of the players would remain a significant consideration against which fan enjoyment would be balanced). Furthermore, it assumes that most fans consider ‘fairness’ and good decision making as less valuable and less relevant to their enjoyment than the sheer ‘magic of the moment’, and that they do so at all times. One can imagine that where a poor decision is made, the aggrieved set of fans are far more likely to value fairness whereas the benefactors of the decision probably wouldn’t be all that concerned. This inconsistency and uncertainty of what is important and whose perspective is important when evaluating the rules of the game makes it difficult for these value criticisms to be persuasive since they go to the very heart of what football is about, but mask the underlying discussions which need to be resolved. It is also indicative of the consensus amongst the professionals of the game with regard to these questions that VAR was introduced to begin with, a perspective which as noted before will be a significant counter balance to any consideration of the fans’ perspective in deciding VAR’s future.
Hopefully this has given the great VAR debate a little more philosophical clarity and will allow for both sides to come to a better understanding of where the other is coming from in terms of what VAR is trying to do and whether it achieves it. This, combined with a stronger understanding of the underlying philosophies informing many of the criticisms of VAR will also, with a bit of luck, foster a more consistent and open discussion about football that doesn’t necessarily use VAR as a scapegoat for all disagreements, but merely a point at which many differing ideals clash.
IFAB, Information on the Video Assistant (VAR) experiment, January 2018, http://static-3eb8.kxcdn.com/documents/639/165902_220118_IFAB_Media_Package_ABM2017_all_media_FINAL.pdf
IFAB Laws of the Game 2019-2020, Law 5.4, https://static-3eb8.kxcdn.com/files/document-category/062019/frRhKJNjSBAtiyt.pdf
H.L.A. Hart, The Concept of Law (3rd edn, OUP 2012), Chapter 7
Charles Crawford, The Philosophy of Games: VAR, charlescrawford.biz, 11 Aug 2019, https://charlescrawford.biz/2019/08/11/the-philosophy-of-games-var/
Mads Skauge, ‘Five reasons why VAR is doomed to failure’, idrottsforum.org, 4 Oct 2019, https://idrottsforum.org/feature-skauge191004/ (translation, Jeremy Crump)