Umpires and referees are almost always reasonable

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For some reason, it is considered beyond the pale for football commentators to accept that in some instances both contrasting decisions (foul, not foul) are equally fair judgments by an expert referee.

We should not judge Video Assistant Review by how popular it is among players and commentators. Referees, unlike these two, are not partisan. | Reuters

Over the last 10 years, both cricket and football have made the decision to use technology to help umpires and referees. The advent of televised sport forced their hand. Cricket has been involved in the experiment with the Decision Review System (DRS) for nearly a decade now. Football has adopted Video Assistant Referee (VAR) only recently. What does the experience of DRS say about the potential of VAR? The two systems are interestingly different, but they operate in environments which are basically the same. Why have these systems become necessary? What might the motivation for these systems say about their fate?

 

 

Television has made both sports richer by several orders of magnitude. This wealth has meant that referees and umpires have come to be better-paid, better-trained, more professional, and more evenly competent. But the business model of television has meant that partisan following has also grown exponentially. In the age before television, supporters of clubs tended to be local. Partisan rivalry tended to be local as well. Television has commoditised partisan rivalry and sports programming is designed to cater to it. Commentary and expert analysis in both cricket and football is done by ex-players who identify with their teams. Many refer to their former teams as “we” on commentary. Their ability to be fair towards other teams is considered a laudable feature of their work, rather than the minimum requirement for a pundit. Referees and umpires bear the brunt of this partisan ire.

But partisanship is not the only count on which referees and umpires receive abuse. While India fans are more likely to impute sinister motives to decisions that go against their Indian team and voice contempt for the umpire, this is not only because they think the umpire is biased against India. A second, less considered but arguably more significant basis for the abusive contempt with which referees and umpires are treated is that refereeing or umpiring are considered to be trivial jobs. Referees don’t have to run as fast as the players. Football doesn’t have dozens of laws. Umpires have it even easier, they just have to occupy the best position in the ground and watch the game.

Referees and umpires at the top level have to exercise judgment in real time, on action which is faster, more power-packed, and more intensely contested, closer to the edges of the laws of the game, than at any other level in the sport. The contestants in these games are highly driven, ambitious, competitive individuals who have a lot at stake. Managing such a match is difficult and different referees take different approaches. Some of these approaches are controversial, others are unsuccessful. Umpire Simon Taufel has spoken of the importance of being able to “manage a match”. Umpires and referees have been unfairly hounded out of the game because they couldn’t manage the players involved.

If match management is difficult, exercising judgment is even more so. When the brilliant Neymar glides across the turf at extremely fast speeds and is pursued by a defender who is marginally behind him, and instinctively puts a hand on Neymar’s back, did it cause the speeding Neymar to lose balance and fall (a foul) or did Neymar exploit the minimal contact to dive? When Mitchell Johnson is swinging the new ball back into the right hander at 150 kmph, did that last one which landed on middle-and-leg swing enough to miss leg stump? These are difficult, high-stakes judgment calls which have to be made correctly in a split-second in the heat of the action. The laws of football and cricket are designed to require the adjudicator to make judgment calls.

 

Referees and umpires have mastered the laws and the current interpretation of the laws in any given competition, and while it is not always trivial, both VAR and DRS should improve adjudication.

 

These are high stakes, difficult judgments in partisan environments. Players argue with referees because they know that pressure works. Continually badgering the referee about every judgment call means that in later judgment calls the referee might rule one way when otherwise he might have ruled the other. Luis Aragones, the Spanish manager in Euro 2008 encouraged his star players to introduce themselves to the referee and refer to him by his first name at the start of the game. He felt that the referee would be impressed that a Barcelona or Real Madrid superstar knew who he was. When the refereeing supervisor Pier Luigi Collina met the Spanish players before the 2010 World Cup to explain how referees would interpret the rules, the subject of trying to influence referees by arguing with them came up. He asserted that it wouldn’t work, and that the players shouldn’t bother trying it; all the Spanish players though were unanimous in disagreeing with him. Even in the 2018 tournament, the Iran manager Carlos Queiroz effectively accused the referee of handing out a lenient card because the offender was the superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. In the age of cable television, these usual points of contestation between players and referees are not backed merely by the local partisan supporters at the ground, they are backed by global partisan supporters who are more numerous and less predictable than the locals.

Just this year, the Australian captain, vice-captain and opening batsman were banned for a year for what was a technical violation of the laws of cricket, for which they had already been duly punished under the game’s code of conduct. This act by their home cricket board was driven entirely by inexplicable public outrage. Everybody from the UK Prime Minister, to the Australian Prime Minister stuck the knife in, doubtless based on their own domestic political calculations. The outrage fed on itself and a frightened board decided to throw the players (who it was duty bound to protect) under the bus.

To take another example, the Champions League Quarter Final between Liverpool and Manchester City was marred by an incident in which the bus carrying the visiting Manchester City players was first inexplicably rerouted and then attacked with rocks and bottles by Liverpool fans amidst a sea of hostile red. Interestingly, and with a surprising degree of success, that hostile sea of red, which, by its own admission, was designed to “create an intimidating atmosphere for the visiting players”, managed to convince the rest of the world that the bottle-throwers were foreign to it. If there are two people, A and B, and both want to intimidate C, then the choice between shouting angry abuse in a vast mob, and throwing bottles from that mob are simply two different styles of abuse. There is no moral difference between them. But, cultivating partisan interest remains in the interests of everybody who profits from the game. So they all agreed that those bottle-throwers were completely alien. Not like the good partisans.

Partisanship is a violent force. It is also a profitable force. And in the age of the Internet and global cable television coverage, it has grown considerably. It raises the stakes for referees and umpires in ways which it is in nobody’s interests (except the referees’ and umpires’) to appreciate. Not the journalists who are interested in generating traffic for their publications, not FIFA or ICC, who are interested in making more money and getting more people interested, and not even the cities and towns who bear the brunt of the violence (literal or otherwise). Partisan fans spend a lot of money. In free societies, legal authorities rightly see only the literal violence to be a problem. But the clubs and news publications which glorify partisan fandom for profit are complicit in its violence, and in its abuse of referees.

Referees and umpires have been squeezed from all sides. By the partisanship from fans and pundits, and by the players for whom the stakes are higher than ever. These raised stakes matter fundamentally to the work of referees and umpires because it is part of their job to exercise judgment. Exercising judgment means making conclusions about marginal situations. These judgments will, by the very definition of a marginal situation, not be consistent. Partisan motivations are at their most righteous when they feel they have scored a logical point. “Inconsistent ref!” is the most succinct righteousness inducing point. The first casualty of partisanship is marginality — the possibility of conceding reasonable doubt. VAR and DRS are both designed to deal with the marginal situations in interesting different ways which are explored below, but does this matter?

 

By definition, judgment calls are not obvious. When a ball goes out of play, this can be observed completely, either in real time, or on video replay. When a ball touches the boundary rope, this can be similarly observed. Based on the observation, it is trivial to reach a conclusion. All the possibilities are mapped to corresponding conclusions in the rules. Consequently, it is possible to say clearly when the conclusion is wrong and when the conclusion is correct. In these types of decisions, the conclusion (or the judgment) is clear.

But most judgment calls are not like line decisions. If the ball had not hit the pad, would it have gone on to hit the stumps? The batsman was on the move when the ball hit the pad; was the impact on the pad within the width of the stumps, or was it marginally outside? The defender was fully committed to the tackle and got the ball first and then also the attacker’s ankle; was the tackle fair or dangerous? In these cases, the amount of computation required to go from the observed action to the decision is significant. The line between fair and unfair, legal and illegal, is not as explicitly discernible as it is in the case of the line decisions.

This necessarily means that there will always been some events in the game for which ‘not-out and out’, or ‘legal and illegal’, will be equally reasonable judgments. In other words, if you showed some events to a hundred umpires or a hundred referees, then, despite being experts (or perhaps because they are experts), they are likely to be split down the middle.

In cricket, DRS has chosen to tackle this problem (which occurs in the case of LBW decisions) by creating the component of umpire’s call. Since the technology is used to review a decision (and not an appeal), the original decision is allowed to stand in a precisely (and narrowly) defined band of marginal situations. For example, if an umpire gives a batsman not-out on an LBW appeal, and the estimate of the ball-tracking projection shows less than half of the ball hitting the outer edge of the off or leg stump, the evidence is not considered clear enough to reverse the original not-out decision. If the umpire gives the batsman out on an identical LBW appeal, then this decision is not reversed either. In other words, out and not-out are allowed to stand as correct decisions for the exact same appeal. This is inconsistent. But it is also correct.

The central difference between DRS and VAR has to do with the circumstances under which the technology is involved. In DRS, players have to request a review of an umpire’s decision. A fixed number of unsuccessful reviews are permitted per innings. This sets up an economy of error. Players are incentivised to avoid speculative reviews. It remains debatable whether or not this is successful. Reviews requested by players result in reversals only about 25% of the time.

VAR uses a different approach. The assistance of technology can be requested by either the referee or the video referee, but not by the players. It can be requested for four specific types of situations which are considered potentially “game-changing”.

It should be noted that cricket is an episodic sport and so is amenable to review differently from football. For example, in a counter-attack against a high defensive line, the referee may identify a foul at the very beginning of the move. But the beginning of the move is not clearly demarcated in the way it is in cricket (where each episode begins when the bowler runs in to bowl). So the first judgment has to do with when the move began. And when the move broke down. Suppose there was a misplaced pass which hit a defender and fell to a teammate, did the move break down? Did the ball hit the defender? Or did the defender deflect it and make what was effectively a bad pass? These are all judgment calls which are made based on conventions of interpretation.

But these are technical difficulties. Referees and umpires have mastered the laws and the current interpretation of the laws in any given competition, and while it is not always trivial, both VAR and DRS should improve adjudication. Expert referees and umpires will find reasonable solutions about confoundingly complicated situations. Obvious mistakes will be corrected, especially in football, where reviews can be initiated by the video referee.

 

 

But will this quell controversy? The controversy does not arise from a benign, innocent place. Along with celebrity, it drives a multi-billion-dollar sports media industry. In cricket, this has meant that even with DRS, new venues for controversy are located. Former players use their considerable celebrity and authority within the game to routinely ridicule the estimate of the ball-tracker simply by saying “that does not look right”. On low catches, the pictures seem to provide new controversies. Before the days of the video replay, the controversy arose because the batsman wouldn’t accept the fielder’s word and the umpire would then either rule against or in favour of the batsman, leaving at least one side dissatisfied. With the advent of video, the controversy arises about whether the video replay is systematically biased against low catches.

DRS may have improved umpiring outcomes, but it has not quelled controversy. And it continues to give rise to new controversies. The idea of umpire’s call remains controversial. The problem with these controversies is that they are substantially empty — the players who question the pictures are not trained to understand the mathematical basis of the pictures. They do not ask good questions because they do not understand what they are looking at. But their word carries weight. Arguments from authority always make for the finest controversy fodder.

At the 2018 World Cup this week, VAR was involved in marginal handball rulings on consecutive nights. The first, involving the Portuguese defender Cedric, was given as a penalty against Portugal after a VAR review. The Iranian attacker headed the ball. Cedric was marking him and jumped for the ball with the attacker. The Iranian player made a glancing header, the ball hit Cedric’s outstretched forearm, and the referee Enrique Cáceres gave a VAR-influenced penalty.

The next night, the Argentina centre-half Marcos Rojo was trying to deal with a similar dangerous ball in the Argentinian penalty area under pressure from the Nigerian striker. Rojo missed his headed clearance. The ball glanced his head and fell to the ground off his arm. The referee, Cüneyt Çakır, consulted VAR but decided not to award a penalty after reviewing the video.

After the game, the veteran presenter and former England striker Gary Lineker played host to former internationals Rio Ferdinand, Didier Drogba and Pablo Zabaleta in the BBC’s television studio. Drogba and Ferdinand felt Çakır should have awarded a penalty. Lineker and Zabaleta felt the referee made the correct decision. Ferdinand’s reasoning was that he had seen penalties “given for less”. Lineker’s reasoning was based on the law which specified the intentional handball rule. In the end, Lineker justified the ruling by pointing out that even in the studio, opinion was evenly divided.

 

 

If VAR is considered with precision, then all four former players in the studio were wrong. According to the rules of VAR (more details here), the referee’s decision would only be reversed if it was evident that the original decision involved a “clear error”. So, in the Portugal vs Iran case, the referee decided upon review that he had been wrong originally. The referee in the Argentina vs Portugal game concluded that he was not wrong. Both decisions were equally correct. This conclusion is inescapable because the original decision was marginal.

If you consulted a large number of elite referees about those two handball decisions, you will probably find them to be evenly divided about the correct answer. The fact that both original decisions prompted a VAR review supports this idea. Referees are required to make the decision. This is why they would be split down the middle in our thought experiment above. Lineker, Ferdinand, Drogba and Zabaleta were not asked to make the decision. They are there to explain what the referees did and why. And in this, they got it plainly wrong. Punditry cannot simply involve saying “If I was referee, I would have done X”. Its irrelevant what the pundit would have done. What matters is whether the referee’s actions were reasonable. And here, sadly for pundits in cricket and football alike, the decisions of umpires and referees are almost always reasonable.

 

Nevertheless, even though the referees got everything right, there has been plenty of adverse comment. The Nigerian captain complained that the referee did not explain his decision (the referee is not required to explain decisions to players). On TV, none of the pundits was able to point out the marginality of the decision. This is how authority is undermined without good reason. VAR has created new venues of controversy.

Imagine what would have happened in the days before VAR. The video of the incident would have been reviewed by presenters and discussants after the game and there would have been discussions about the law. VAR has taken this opportunity away. After all, it is not plausible to say without firm evidence that an elite referee, who has plenty of experience officiating high-stakes football games and has mastery of the law and its current interpretation, made a glaring mistake despite two looks at an incident. So then, the controversy shifts to VAR itself.

VAR will never satisfy fans, pundits or journalists who are either partisan or must serve partisan audiences. The best way to think about both VAR and DRS (which should still reconsider its use of the player review), is that they have clarified the laws of football and cricket as well as their interpretations for the sports-watching public to an extent that is significant greater than what was possible before. The marginal decision in both sports has been isolated by VAR and DRS, in much the same way that an experiment isolates a phenomenon which has hitherto been theorised or suspected but not systematically observed.

As technical objects, VAR and DRS are successful in their own ways. The only significant question about VAR for FIFA at this point is, given increasing partisan following, will the success of VAR matter?

(The piece has been updated since first published)

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