An Ode to Fallibility

Instant replay is ruining sports.

illustration of person kicking ball with video distortion
Miguel Porlan

December 2019, Norwich, England.

Floodlit winter brilliance. Scintillating figures with dragon breath, some in yellow, some in blue. Norwich City is playing Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League. Teemu Pukki, Norwich’s fiercely scurrying Finnish striker, receives—or magnetically attracts—a long, searching ball from Mario Vrančić onto his chest; angles it into his own path; and then, slicing between two Tottenham defenders, zeroes it past the scrambling goalkeeper and into the back of the net. Beautiful. The goal-scorer wheels away in triumph, the home crowd goes nuts, shazam—a lightning ripple of sport-induced gladness zips around the world.

But wait, hang on … Oh, Christ. VAR. The Video Assistant Referee system, reviled innovation of the current Premier League season, is “checking” the goal. One hundred fifty miles away, in London, footage is being reviewed. We’re in limbo. A vacuum occupies the broadcast booth; the crowd shifts, grumbles, in a haze of spoiling endorphins. Then, on the big screen, there it is: goal disallowed. A haggard roar goes up. It has been determined that Pukki, at the moment that Vrančić sent the ball his way, was microscopically—with perhaps the outer edge of his shoulder—ahead of the deepest-lying Spurs defender. In other words, he was offside. The referee didn’t see it; the linesmen didn’t see it; the crowd didn’t see it; the Tottenham players didn’t see it. Nobody saw it. But the faceless invigilators of VAR, in their multiscreen hive—they saw it. Sorry, Pukki. Sorry, universe. Wind back the spool of joy. No goal.

Watching VAR happen, watching this huge, technocratic toad lower its clumsy haunches onto the beautiful and mobile game of soccer, I feel ill. Fans of the NBA, the NFL, Major League Baseball, and the other leagues using this kind of surveillance will understand. I feel, as William James put it, menaced and negated in the springs of my innermost life.

I think about all the layers of finicking supervision and overweening scrutiny to which we subject ourselves: the preposterous standards, the insensate judgments, the malign fantasy of perfectibility that has overtaken even our moments of play. And it is a fantasy. Mike Riley, the chief referee of the Premier League, recently identified four instances in which valid decisions by on-field officials had been overruled by video review.

As for the Pukki decision, it might have been, in the narrowest and most metrical sense, right. But everything else about it is wrong: the second-guessing, the flow-reversal, the sheer bummer of the process. The VAR world—with its obscure vectors and subatomic infringements—is just not what soccer is. Not what reality is.

So here’s to being fallible, to honoring the possibilities of the ever-running moment by accepting that some of those possibilities are wrong. We live our lives in negotiation with entropy, do we not? A tolerance for error is a must. Not for injustice, not for corruption, but for the honest mistake, made in real time. Solomon himself blew a call now and again. So what? It’s a universal condition. It’s the universal condition. You don’t hit Pause and summon the immaculate arbitrators. You don’t wait for the screen to tell you what happened. You don’t stop the game until the game is over.