Another weekend, another chance for commentators and fans to vilify the country's football referees.
“The referee was a disgrace. How he failed to see the incident [which was patently obvious to me, having viewed it three or four times from a number of different camera angles] is beyond me.”
Comments such as this (minus the bit in parenthesis, of course!) increasingly dominate live commentaries of football matches and post-match phone-in programmes. Intoxicated by the heady mix of multiple camera angles, slow-motion replays and computer-generated virtual images, TV and radio pundits increasingly call for this same technology to be used to prevent the so-called ‘errors’ made by the game’s officials.
But this seemingly unquenchable thirst to get to the ‘truth’ of what actually happened is based on a false premise. That is, that technology can prove whether or not a referee has made ‘the right decision’. It actually does no such thing. The superficial gloss of apparent objectivity provided by technology’s ever more sophisticated bag of tricks is an illusion.
The controversial events that commentators and others strive so hard to analyze and reconstruct only exist at the instant that the referee rules on them. The official has not made a mistake if he turns down a penalty appeal or disallows a goal, even if television replays appear to 'prove conclusively' that the ball hit a player’s hand or that a goalscorer was standing in an offside position. It is only an offence, a goal or whatever if, in the opinion of the referee, the relevant conditions have been met at that specific instant to deem it so. Whether or not a ball has crossed the goal line is the only question that can be answered definitively by the use of technology. All other events are matters of interpretation. And the only person whose interpretation matters is the referee.
We don’t need technology to tell us ‘what really happened’. We know straightaway from the decision that the referee makes. Indeed, technology can’t tell us the answer. However sophisticated it might be, it cannot model the unique perception, interpretation and evaluation of the situation made by the man (or woman) who constructs the only view of reality that counts on these matters in the instant that they occur.
Arguing, in the intensity of the moment, about whether or not we would have called a decision the same way as the referee is the ‘stuff’ of spectatorship. I do it all of the time from the comfort of my seat at Pride Park. To analyse an event to death, in an effort to ‘prove’ that an official was wrong, is quite another. It is futile and wrong-headed to argue that there is a valid ruling on events that somehow exists outside the head of the referee. It is not even a matter of questioning his (or her) interpretation of incidents and events – as if these were somehow being enacted by other people (the players) independently of the referee’s involvement. His/her moment-by-moment participation in the game, including the rulings that he/she makes (and doesn't make), is an integral part of the enactment of those events.
Referees have not suddenly become less able or more fallible than their predecessors. In many respects, those at the top of their profession are better trained, more professional and fitter than they have ever been. It’s just that they are now forced to operate in the full glare of sport’s version of “Big Brother.” In the now-distant past, the best referees were noted for their ability to ‘read the game’ and apply the letter of the law with a degree of discretion. When those today fail to do the same, they are often chastised for their inability to apply ‘common sense’. When they do, they’re accused by these same people of being inconsistent!
To my mind, this crusade to subordinate the in-the-moment judgement of a match official to the delayed, technology-driven assessment of a third party threatens the very essence of the sport. As does the ritualistic and increasingly orchestrated criticism of referees by high-profile media commentators and pundits. The latter has already 'crossed the line' - and I don't need a television replay to tell me so!
Related post: The match turned on the penalty. Or was it the throw-in?