Harvard Hero Moment #23: VAR and the pursuit of fairness

Will Cook

04 Mar 2020

“It’s stifling the beautiful game” “It’s removing the speed and spontaneity from the sport we love” “It’s peculiar, wobbly lines don’t make sense” It’s fair to say that Video Assistant Referee (VAR) has disrupted the football industry in its relatively short life. But it’s not in quite the form of the Clayton Christensen-style disruptive innovation which we associate with many of the inventions mentioned to date in Harvard’s Technology Hero series. Those technologies have delivered transformative innovation. The disruption of VAR is perhaps more synonymous with a trainline disruption: delays proceedings, frustrating and a right pain in the…! It’s unsurprising then that a recent YouGov poll revealed that just one in 25 fans believes VAR has worked 'very well'.

A hero, really?

Based on the above, am I sure VAR is a technology hero? Yes, I am. This is because VAR as a technology can bring greater accuracy and consequently greater fairness to football, which to me is important. In today’s big money game, the lives of managers, players and entire clubs hinge on key decisions. With the stakes so high, don’t want we want to utilise all the tools at our disposable to make the most accurate decisions? I’m not claiming the technology is incredibly innovative, as it is simply a video replay after all. Though I wouldn’t measure the “heroism” of a technology based on its innovation; instead I would focus on its benefit. There are undeniably many reasons why VAR hasn’t been beneficial to the spectator experience. But in reality, very few of the flaws of VAR are to do with technology itself: it’s to do with the interpretation and consistency of the rules. Referring back to the same YouGov poll highlights that VAR is perhaps more popular than the media would have us think, as three-quarters of fans want the Premier League to continue using the system.

Won’t anyone think of the referees?

And then a small (and perhaps unpopular) point should be made about the officials. Footballers today are running at speeds of 23 mph. Expecting referees and linesmen/women to not only keep pace, but always make an accurate judgement at this pace is just not realistic. That isn’t a criticism of the officials, but more a reality of the situation. If we can use VAR technology to help officials make fairer and more accurate decisions, why wouldn’t we? Over the past 20 years, similar technologies such as Television Match Official (TMO) and Decision Review System (DRS) have been implemented in rugby and cricket respectively with great benefits. Admittedly, you can’t compare the rules of cricket and football, nor the different speeds of the game. But the point still stands, that if implemented correctly*, VAR technology can enhance accuracy and in turn become an unlikely hero.

Rules keeping pace with technology

In many ways, the challenges that football governing bodies are facing to keep pace with technology are similar to the obstacles many industries and regulations face today, to stay one step ahead of innovation. Think of data privacy laws keeping pace with data brokers, for example. I’m not saying the implications of technology for the offside rule are comparable to its impact on GDPR and citizens’ privacy, but there is a trend. Industries and the regulations governing them must evolve as technology emerges. Are we experiencing a techlash in football at the moment? Probably. But like in many cases, the appropriate evolution of regulations can go a long way to address the issue. Whether VAR will become a hero remains to be seen, though I do feel there may be a time in the not too distant future when we wonder how we survived without it. Like much in our world today, if harmony can be found between the technology and the regulation, then fairness can hopefully be achieved. *Another extensive blog needed for that one!