Bibiana Steinhaus draws opening match of new Bundesliga season
Bibiana Steinhaus to become the #Bundesliga's first female referee ?
— Bundesliga English (@Bundesliga_EN) August 10, 2017
Bibiana Steinhaus is a very good referee. I know because I watched the 2011 Women’s World Cup final match and I don’t even remember seeing her there. I recall the tingly feeling of empathy I felt for the Japanese team. They won Japan’s first ever major international title less than four months out from two devastating tragedies in that country. The second of those culminating in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. And I can also recall feeling badly for the U.S. women nonetheless for their effort.
But the referee?
That’s about as it should be though. Really good referees are almost invisible. That is particularly true in football where it is so easy for the referee to become not only obvious, but downright obtrusive.
Why not robots?
Of course Steinhaus is not debuting alone this Friday. Leagues all over the world are beginning to experiment with video assistant referee (VAR) tech as part of the match-management process. But Bundesliga and MLS have taken the deepest plunge so far.
The system is due to go live in the German top flight this week.
For a long time now, of course, technological means have been used to make goal line calls. And that’s about as it should be in my opinion. The one thing technology can do is let you know where the ball is and when it might be out of play.
Conversely, behind the VAR is not some complicated cloud computing system. Rather, the VAR is mostly just another set of human eyes. Well-trained eyes at that, but still human. The assistance part means that those eyes get the benefit of video replay, including multiple angles, high def resolution, and speed control.
But does that mean that Steinhaus has arrived just in time to be replaced by a machine? Let’s hope not. A referee is not at her best when acting as an automaton applying a rigid set of code-like rules.
If she were so, the game would be entirely different and a lot less of a game at all. Imagine for a moment such a device “pondering” a call for embellishment as a player sprawls forward in the area late in stoppage time. Harder still to imagine such a machine looking that same offender in the eye and deciding the best call is no call.
Only well-trained referees are capable of that.
You never put your hands on the same touch screen twice…
The desire to put technology into the game reflects the desire to improve the game by eliminating mistakes. None of us go through the day without making mistakes. And I’m speaking as someone who regularly confuses one player for another. I only recently got Alonso and Ramos sorted…with help. Either way I understand the interest in eliminating error. Particularly when the stakes are high.
But here’s the catch with technology: it’s built by humans. And after it’s built, it gets used by still other human beings. Because the users of technology are human and not, well, inhuman, we can and do adapt. Yes I know that Elon Musk and Microsoft want you to believe that “artificial intelligence” can adapt as well, but that hasn’t happened yet. And even if it ever did, humans would adapt again to that adaptation.
Players and coaches and referees and especially fans have seen changes to the game before. But we keep coming back. We don’t come back to see how much more accurate the technology is, we come back to use the technology to see even more clearly how excellent the humans playing the game can be and often are.
This Friday we’ll show up to see a new referee implement a new refereeing system. We’ll see her for about 5 minutes and then she’ll blow her whistle and she’ll disappear again.
Good for her. And good for us too.