IEEE Technology and Society Magazine - December 2019 - 59

every game, there should (in principle) be absolute consistency of decisions.8 Managers, whose employment is
precarious and dependent on results, would no longer
be hostage to an incorrect decision, or reliant on the
variance in decision making, evening out over the
course of a season. Moreover, this is an application of
technology that creates (almost literally) a "level playing
field" for competitors, rather than shifting benefits
toward those that can afford it [20].
The highest levels of professional sport, which are
televised from many different angles, and can be indefinitely repeated in slow motion in a studio, analyzed and
discussed, creates intense pressure for referees whose
decisions can be shown to be wrong. To remove such
pressure would be to reduce the likelihood of intimidation, abuse (from chanting to the potentially violent),
and disgrace. It could also, possibly, reduce opportunities for match fixing by bribing the officials: hacking
SmartFlag would be altogether more challenging and
more obvious.
For the spectators, two of the principle attractions
of football as a sport are firstly, its generally fast and
free-flowing nature, and secondly, its continual promise/threat of scoring a goal with the relative rarity of a
goal actually being scored. Regarding the former, systems such as VAR involve a review, which can interrupt
a game for "long" periods, during which the spectators
at the ground are not party to the discussion. Moreover, play can actually continue before being called
back because of the review. The game enters a bizarre
"Schrödinger's Football" state: the game carries on
apparently as normal, but these actions might count
for nothing if the game is stopped. Regarding the latter,
it is a source of disproportionate frustration when a
comparatively rare event is either awarded, or denied,
because of an officiating error: SmartFlag would eliminate this.
From the perspective of society in general, during
matches of great importance or matches between
teams that have been rivals for years (Derby games for
example), the already extant hostility between fans can
be exacerbated by poor offside calls. This results in an
increase in antisocial incidents with serious ramifications to life and property. The incidents that have resulted due to these incorrect offside calls include brawls
during or post games and hooliganism sparked by the
calls. In fact, some have argued that the hooliganism
that scarred English Football during the 1970s and
1980s could be traced back to a single ambiguous offside call in a 1971 game that arguably cost the losing
team the championship that year [21].

The arguments put forward here suggest that the use
of a technological solution, such as SmartFlag, would be
broadly beneficial to all the stakeholders in a sport (players, managers, officiators, and spectators), although this
claim could only be fully substantiated by field trials and
surveys. However, the elimination of potential human
error through algorithmic definition is not necessarily a
definite good. For one reason, SmartFlag (or a system
like it) would also interfere with the relationship between
the officials and the spectators at the ground. There is
undeniably some collective cathartic relief as the crowd
vents its frustration at some perceived injustice on the
officials; the officials understand this and, so long as its
remains on the good-natured side of "banter" (see
above), broadly tolerate it as part of the job. It is an open
question whether this catharsis would be afforded by
"raging against the machine," especially as the perceived
injustice cannot be an injustice - by definition.
A second reason is that social and sporting life is
altogether "messier" and more complex than a binary
outcome. For example, Jorge Valdano (former World
Cup winner with Argentina and manager of Real
Madrid), although he was considering the use of metrics
and statistics in the evaluation of player performance,
wrote "I love football because it is the opposite of science: contradictory, primitive, emotional" [22]. There is
a concern that algorithmic definition would devalue
spor ting endeavor, enter tainment, and audience
engagement because it would reduce that which was
ambiguous, visceral, and emotional about sporting
events and replace it with outcomes that are definitive,
external, and unarguable. In fact, there may be some
cohesive benefit in binding group communities through
a common perceived sense of injustice,9 although this
may be more relevant to an era when a football club
was a symbol of a community rather than a billionaire's
distraction or state instrument of reputation laundering.
It would also make sport less disputatious: introduction of automated decision-making systems would
remove the implications of human intervention in making offside decisions. Often, the linesman and referee
make decisions which are ambiguous and thus can be
interpreted in multiple ways by different sections in the
audience. These in turn lead to multiple postmatch
debates on how the decision may or may not have
favored one team over the other, which are telecast
worldwide. Such shows attract a large number of viewers and also sometimes provide them with a platform to
express their personal opinions. To some, any realm of
human activity that encourages people to have and
express an opinion, to construct an argument from

8

9
See J.B. Priestley's The Good Companions, 1929; in particular the excerpt
quoted at https://martinjohnes.com/2011/12/21/my-favourite-literar y
-passage-on-football/.

We say "in principle" because, assuming the technical challenges of
data localization are overcome, it also assumes that the system has been
trained with the "right" dataset, a common problem in machine learning.

DECEMBER 2019

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IEEE TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIETY MAGAZINE

59


https://martinjohnes.com/2011/12/21/my-favourite-literary-passage-on-football/ https://martinjohnes.com/2011/12/21/my-favourite-literary-passage-on-football/

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