How technology is spoiling the wonderful chaos of sport

Joel Wilson Ashes Edgbaston DRS overturned decision PA

Even if you only have a passing knowledge of current football matters, you’ll know that the introduction of VAR has been somewhat contentious. It has a dwindling number of fans. Even people who thought it was a good idea are losing faith in both the technology but especially in those who are using it. The frustration for some is the perception of how ‘well’ it works in other sports, often pointing to cricket as an example.  

They are two very different sports, of course and the technology is asked to do very different things and in a very different context. However, while crickets’ natural propensity for starting, then stopping, often for a couple of minutes while a bowler walks back, or a batter fiddles with their pads, whacks the block hole a few times, does a bit of gardening and adjusts their box, means the technology can have time to do its job. But I don’t want it to. Whether it’s DRS, hotspot, snick-o-meter, or hawk-eye. I’d happily do without it. Now there’s talk of, helmet cams, using lasers to help judge run out decisions, put sensors in bails and in the boundary rope to determine if the batter is out or scored a 4 and install a stump camera to determine close catching decisions. I’m against it all and for very good reasons.

A common view is to ask why would you not want to get decisions right if the ability to do so is available? Why should we rely on some rotund auld fella in a white coat to judge if it was an LBW when we can have a camera do it for us?  This is the exact same argument that is used in football and my answer is the same for both. And it is the same because it is based on a principle, on a philosophy, in fact.

Sport is a human endeavour. We invented it to entertain ourselves by trying to do something – in cricket’s case, hit a ball or hit the stumps – that is quite difficult and thus is very satisfying when we manage it. It is a test of not just our skill but of our fallibility. In all sports we are constantly fighting our limitations and trying to push them away in the full knowledge that sooner or later, we will make a mistake and get out, or get hit for six, or drop a ball. That is actually the fun of it. If we were all really good at cricket or any sport, it’d be no fun at all. It is the knowledge that we are all trying to negotiate with our flaws in different ways, that give it its quintessential humanity.  We try and try and try to do our best but we accept that we are not perfect. This applies to umpires and referees every bit as much as it does to players.

But what technology does is stop reality, rewind it and judge what has happened. It fixes mistakes as though it is reality Tipex. We have taken away the imperfect humanity and replaced it with an all-seeing lens. We have stripped out error but without error, we are not human, we are robot. Error is who we are. And in every moment of our waking life, we accept this as implicit to our existence. So why change this when it comes to sport? I want the contest to be between batter and bowler and fielder, not batter, bowler, fielder and technology.  Being judged by machine and not human is a cold experience that fundamentally feels wrong. You can’t argue with it because it isn’t sentient, it has no soul, no spirit. It merely exists. Who you are and what you are and how you are is irrelevant to it.  You are not you, you are merely your actions. Technology in sport depersonalised us quite profoundly. It strips out our humanity in favour of Right or Wrong.

That’s why it feels wrong and disturbing even when the decisions are correct. I’d argue that many of the protests at VAR in football have this existential dilemma at their core, albeit subconsciously.  When a beard, or armpit is offside, there is a general “oh that’s ridiculous” response. We get angry at the VAR official as if the machine is his fault. What we are really protesting about is the absence of humanity in the decision, what is sometimes called common sense. The black and white nature of technology has no place for common sense or human understanding. Yet our lives are not lived in this binary way. We have so many other ingredients to our existence such as fairness, what is proper, what is right. But VAR nor any tech in cricket can’t address those. It’s only got yes or no. So we feel stripped of our humanity by it.

When it comes down to it, I want officials to have the ability to get things wrong. I do not want all the decisions to be right at all costs. I accept totally that some will be wrong and I don’t mind because that is part of the humanity of sport. We try our best to do our best but we will fail and that’s fine. Sport is a one shot deal. You can’t go back and take the cover drive again because you nicked it to first slip, you can’t rewind and pitch a ball longer after a short one is dispatched for six, so why should we be able to get a second go at getting any official’s decision right?

At its core sport is chaos. We do not know what will happen next. We can have a guess but that’s about it and that’s why we love it in so many forms. All technological adjudication does is try to tame that chaos. Now, why would we want to do that? Wanting all decisions to be correct is an intellectual position to take, but sport isn’t solely an intellectual proposition, it is far more to do with body and soul.  I fully understand why many “just want to get the decisions right” but that isn’t what being human is about. We are not machines and to many of us that’s why having our sports judged by them is so wrong and leaves us so cold.