As women started to perform the role, the “men” part was never going to survive in the 21st century. If the Church of England are considering renaming the “Our Father” then “Linesmen” never stood a prayer. The artists previously known as Linesmen became known as Assistant Referees. Soon they will be replaced by symbols. There are still two humans who perform a variation of the same physical acts. They run, reason, and raise their flags. But they don’t really matter. They have been replaced by a higher power - a human who interprets images from cameras. When it comes to important offside decisions the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) is all that matters. Soon, even that human will no longer be needed – player location is a small problem compared to the location technology that is already used by driverless cars. I regard such changes as progress. Events of the last few days will hasten the demise of the human VAR. Human error in the implementation of VAR might have costs Arsenal and Brighton two points each.
Since the introduction of VAR, and the change in guidelines to the two human assistant referees, there has been an 11.3% decrease in the number of offsides. This number comes from a welcome addition to the growing research on VAR. It is from a SSRN paper by Camilo Abbate, Jeffrey Cross and Richard Uhrig (the latter two authors have Journal of Sports Economics paper on the impact of Covid-19). The SSRN paper uses observations from 35,183 games from the 16 top leagues. It is primarily concerned with home-field advantage.
Like the humans patrolling the sidelines of soccer fields, the last paragraph of the SSRN paper raises a flag about a potential problem. The flag relates to the conventional wisdom in sports economics that the (main?) channel for home-field advantage is referee bias. Interpreting the lack of statistical support for referee bias, the authors say “One must consider the possibility that the observed disparities in various outcomes … are driven by the direct effect of fans on players rather than the referee”. A worthy consideration. Although the referee makes the ultimate adjudication on whether of not there is foul play, the play itself is the product of the players. If there are human errors and biases, that arise as the result of mass psychology, then it is worth considering if they are the product of 22 biological machines rather than just one.