The rain was unrelenting, with the shrouded sun providing only enough light to turn the sky a slightly brighter shade of gray. The artificial turf was slick.
The ball was played into the penalty area. Three players converged on the ball. In an instant, they formed a tangle of bodies on the field.
Everyone’s eyes and voices turned back to the referee.
Unfortunately, that was me.
As I tried to process what happened – whether the red player got a foot to the ball, whether the green player tripped over her teammate or was fouled – one thought jumped into my mind: I’d love another look at this.
So as the choruses of supporters and pundits bemoan the use of VAR, those of us who run around with a whistle have a different perspective in the most literal sense.
Replays notwithstanding, becoming a referee changes the way we see and appreciate the game. I sometimes think I’m doing the job as penance for all the things I said in every capacity from foul-mouthed undergraduate at Duke, renowned for a men’s basketball program that wins championships and terrifies officials, to overeager journalist bemoaning the state of refereeing in whichever competition I was covering at the time.
I try to remind myself that I was once on the sideline as a coach. And I can sympathize with the frustration of the Under-11 boys coach questioning my decision to award a corner kick, even as I wonder why he thought he had a better view from across the field than I had from 10 yards away or my assistant referee had while in line with the relevant players.
To be sure, controversy is and always will be part of sports, no matter the technology. Offending parties will feel aggrieved despite the evidence against them – witness Steve Smith’s incredulous reaction when replays clearly caught him leg-before wicket in Australia’s dire performance against South Africa at the Cricket World Cup. The NFL has the most firmly established replay protocols in the United States, but arguments over various calls often continue after officials and TV audiences see four or five different angles.
But replay’s value in the NFL is shown in part by where it isn’t used – pass interference. After a brief experiment in the 2019 season, the NFL decided such plays would no longer be reviewable. That’s a pity, because pass interference can be one of the more difficult calls to make in real time, with several matchups of receivers and defensive backs happening simultaneously, and officials often don’t have the best angle to make the right call.
And making plays unreviewable is precisely where the Premier League and other organizations shouldn’t go.
VAR won’t eliminate human error or arguments over interpreting the rules. But there’s a reason the NFL has seven on-field officials – and top-tier college football has eight. There’s a reason ice hockey has four officials for 12 players, basketball has three officials for 10 players, and a two-player tennis match may have an umpire and either a battalion of line judges or well-tested electronics. The more eyes, the better. Usually.
Soccer insists on giving its referee the highest burden of any official in sports. Assistant referees can help to varying degrees, but the bulk of decisions fall on a single person responsible for 22 players.
And criticizing officials is seen as a birthright, even when it comes from a place of manufactured controversy and flimsy appeals to authority. When I talked with a parent who was berating a young ref in a game preceding mine, he noted that he was a former semi-pro player. Judging by the likelihood that he was there because he had a kid playing, his waistline and his hair (not that I’m one to judge), I figured his semi-pro days were a long time ago, if they existed – competitions that declare themselves “semipro” in the USA usually aren’t. But I responded with the infamous case of Efan Ekoku, who had a long professional career, incorrectly proclaiming for several minutes on ESPN that a World Cup 2010 goal had been wrongly disallowed because a defender was present. Even the presence of the great presenter Martin Tyler and ESPN’s production crew couldn’t make him understand that the goalkeeper’s foray forward had placed the attacker in an offside position.
But when done right, replays cut down the number of incorrect calls. Every call that’s reversed takes away an incorrect call. Well, most of them. The Premier League has had some baffling communication issues, and implementation in the Women’s World Cup was rocky. Still, if you watch the NFL – and Major League Soccer, which has done VAR pretty well – you’ll see far more good than harm from replay intervention.
And sometimes, a second look simply confirms that the first glance was correct.
At one recent game, I was the assistant referee on the sideline where the parents were sitting. One dad was fond of yelling out that an opposing player was offside. One call was close. Another wasn’t. A third wasn’t close at all – a player on the other side of the field had been too slow to move up the field, leaving the attacking player in a comfortably legal position.
I finally responded: “Look, your team is recording this game. I’ll bet you $20 when you see the replay you’ll see he wasn’t offside.”
I heard a grumbled “OK.” Then he apparently looked at some sort of recording on his phone.
A few minutes later, the woman with him spoke up: “We just looked at the replay. Do you take Venmo?”
Now if only I could get their help on the calls on which I’m not certain, we’ll be getting somewhere.
That won’t happen at my level of the game. But at the very least, officials in professional sports should have more tools at their disposal than suburban travel-soccer parents have in their pockets.