Soccer, VAR, and Theories of Truth

Earlier this year I was running on a treadmill, which faced a big TV. The UEFA Champions League had resumed after being delayed because of the pandemic. Messi and company were playing, so I was running along with the squad. Messi scored one goal, and I hollered from the top of my lungs. Then, not long later, he scored another and I almost fell off the treadmill. It was a beautiful goal. Messi settled a cross with his midsection about eight yards out from goal. He opened up his shoulders as if he was going to shoot to the far side of the goal, then smoothly chipped it over the keepers outstretched body.

My stomach dropped even as I was pumping my fists. The ref had his finger to his ear. The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) was doing his dirty work. My fears were confirmed when the ref jogged over to the VAR review station on the sideline. A few long moments passed, then the ref jogged on  the field, blew his whistle,  made a signal with his hands, then pointed to where Messi first took down the ball before his goal. The ref decided the goal wouldn’t be allowed because of a handball. I had a few choice words as I pounded  my feet into the treadmill track. Screw VAR.

But why was I so angry? If I’m being objective, Messi’s forearm did play a role in him bringing down the ball, even if it wasn’t discernible to the naked eye at the speed of real life. But slowed down and zoomed in, anyone could see it. Handball. No goal. VAR is helping refs make better  decisions, right?

I had to grapple with a similar question a few years ago during an oral philosophy exam called the ‘De universa philosophia’, which tests knowledge of fundamental philosophy. In that test, one of the examiners, Fr. Joe Koterski, asked me to describe three prominent theories of truth: correspondence, coherence, and pragmatic. When I struggled a bit in answering the question, he translated it into concepts with which I was more familiar with: sports.

He used baseball instead of soccer. He asked, “what theory of truth is operational in the game of baseball as a whole?” It’s coherence theory, which means  beliefs are true as long as they are consistent among each other. For example, the infield fly rule rules a batter out if he hits a flyball in the infield when players are on first and second (true also if there’s a player on third), and there’s less than two outs. This makes sense in the context of baseball, but if you don’t know the game then it might seem senseless. The rule is to prevent infielders from purposely allowing the ball to drop to the ground in order to turn a double or triple play.

Then, Fr. Koterski asked me which theory is operational when an umpire calls a player out on a close play at first base. That would be the pragmatic theory, which holds beliefs are true to the extent they are useful. The umpire calling a player out is taking his knowledge, experience, and observation of the game and making a determination of that particular play.  

“Let’s take baseball for example,” he said, determined to help me understand. “Which theory is at work in the game as a whole?”

“Coherence theory,” something clicked, “because all the rules of baseball make sense of the context of the game. Every player is playing by the same rules.”

Fr. Koterski smiled. “Good. What about when an umpire calls a runner out on a close play at first base?”

“That’s the…” my mind is working, clarity is approaching quite fast now, “pragmatic theory at work. The ump is using his knowledge and experience to make a decision. His belief is correct to the extent that it is useful for the game.”

After this second theory, I knew which one was coming: correspondence. This theory holds that a belief is true if it corresponds to objective reality. Fr. Koterski asked what theory would require that ump to go to video replay to determine the call. Just like Messi’s disallowed goal, the ump could slow down, freeze, zoom in on the position of the players foot when the first baseman catches the ball. The ump could then alter or confirm his call with greater certainty that it corresponds to what really happened in that play. 

Fr. Koterski asked me which theory I think is best. And without hesitation I said this third one: correspondence theory. I think the gift of rationality helps us to arrive at genuine knowledge of reality, even if that knowledge is necessarily limited. The correspondence theory of truth gives objective grounds for ethics especially, since the other two theories can easily give rise to a sort of relativism I believe to be harmful.1 

So, why do I have a problem with VAR? 

The technology was only introduced to the big European leagues in the 2019-2020 season. And I feel like it disrupts the flow of the game. Every goal gets second guessed. No celebration is free of that gut-fear it will get overturned upon review. It used to be that a player simply glanced over his shoulder to make sure the sideline referee wasn’t holding up his flag indicating an offsides ruling. No flag? Go nuts. Do a backflip or something. Now, VAR measures in inches, sometimes what even looks like centimeters to determine a player wasn’t offsides. Doing a backflip only to have your goal overturned makes you look dumb. 

Even worse, just last week, Messi had a goal he scored for the Argentina national team called back because of a missed foul call on the other side of the pitch 27 seconds before the goal. TWENTY SEVEN SECONDS. Where do we draw the line?

I guess my real problem with VAR is that it makes the game feel less human. Even when the team I’m rooting for benefits from a VAR review, there’s still a bitter taste to it. I know my squad will be on the receiving end eventually. 

Perhaps this is analogous to why people don’t prefer the correspondence theory of truth in day-to-day living? Even if I have (or claim) access to objective truths, whether they be in the realm of religion or sexual ethics or politics, that doesn’t resolve the fact that human life is often much messier than I want it to be. Maybe people don’t like the correspondence theory of truth not because it feels less human, but less humane.

That doesn’t mean the correspondence theory isn’t the one we should be operating from. I personally think it’s our safest bet. And feelings aren’t always the most reliable things upon which to build an entire worldview. But what Fr. Koterski meant to show me by using the example of baseball is that  we necessarily operate under different truth theories depending on the situation we’re in. 

My dislike of VAR gives me cause to step back and consider how the truths I give credence to might not be the easiest to accept for some other person, team, group, or religion. It might actually go against their own truth claims.

And even if a close inspection gives me the satisfaction of  being “in the right” at some time or another, I have the foreboding knowledge that my team, my group, myself will eventually be on the receiving end of a foul call, will have a goal disallowed, will commit an action that doesn’t align with God’s vision of the world. And that knowledge will keep me from doing any celebratory backflips. 

  1. I recently wrote another article on Netflix’s “The Social Dilemma” and how it points to relativism as being at the core  of our social ills. Pope Francis agrees.

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