In football, slow-mo replays prompt harsher penalties


A study of referee reactions may bode ill for World Cup players. Andrew Patterson reports.


German referee Deniz Aytekin studies the Video Assistant Referee screen to see if Italy deserve a penalty during the International friendly football match between England and Italy at Wembley stadium in London on March 27, 2018. Research shows his decision can be influenced by watching the scene in slow motion.
German referee Deniz Aytekin studies the Video Assistant Referee screen to see if Italy deserve a penalty during the International friendly football match between England and Italy at Wembley stadium in London on March 27, 2018. Research shows his decision can be influenced by watching the scene in slow motion.
IAN KINGTON/AFP/Getty Images

The controversial recent adoption in football of video assisted refereeing (VAR) is designed to aid the decision-making process in officiating the game. However, a study published in the journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications hints at the possibility that the life of a referee may in some respects become more difficult.

This could have serious implications for the biggest soccer tournament on the planet, the World Cup, which is about to kick off in Russia.

The findings of the study demonstrate that officials are significantly harsher in punishing infractions when viewing them in a slow-motion replay as opposed to video shown in real-time – an outcome which is unlikely to quell the ever-present (and according to another recent study, rising) tide of abuse directed at officials by supporters and players.

To arrive at this conclusion, researchers from the University of Leuven, Belgium, gathered 60 video clips of foul-play scenarios from matches taking places under the auspices of the Union des Associations Européennes de Football (UEFA).

The clips were reviewed multiple times by two active referee match observers – both ex-referees at an international level and now serving as experts in the art of officiating – who determined the appropriate refereeing decision in each case, ranging in severity from a foul resulting in a red card (meaning the player was sent off for the remainder of the game) to no foul given.

Those decisions then served as points of reference. Some 139 active elite referees were then enlisted, 88 of whom participated. Each respondent assessed the full complement of 60 situations, half in real-time and half in slow-motion.

Replay speed made only a slight difference with respect to deciding if a foul had been committed – 63% of decisions to award fouls corresponded with the decisions applied by the match observers on slow-motion video, and 61% in real-time.

However, the playback rate had a significant effect on referees’ judgement of the seriousness of an offence, with more decisions to dismiss players with a red card taken in response to slow-motion replays of situations where lower-grade fouls were given by the expert observers.

Moreover, in all situations, regardless of the experts’ grading, fewer no-foul calls were made from slow-motion viewings.

“Our results suggest that slow motion can increase the severity of a judgement of intention, making the difference between perceiving an action as careless (no card), reckless (yellow card) or with excessive force (red card),” explains lead author Jochim Spitz.

VAR is to be used for the first time in a major international tournament at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and Spitz believes “the finding that referees were more likely to make more severe decisions following slow motion replays is an important consideration for developing guidelines for the implementation of VAR in football leagues worldwide."

The study concluded that while VAR has its uses – for instance, in determining if attacking players have strayed into offside positions, and if contact between players has been made – it may fall short as an aid to decisions where a player’s intention in making a robust challenge needs to be assessed.

"Slow motion video may make it clearer who initiated a foul, whether there actually was contact and whether a foul occurred either inside or outside the penalty area,” Spitz says.

“However, judging human emotion, like intentionality, is quite another story,”

The findings accord with 2016 research carried out by a team at Princeton University in the US, which suggested slowed-down footage shown in courtrooms could skew trial outcomes by giving jurors a false impression of criminal intent.

The study, first reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and subsequently widely covered in mainstream media outlets, indicated that viewers are prone to exaggerating the degree of premeditation on the part of a subject when watching a slow-motion recording.

According to the Princeton researchers, a calculated crime, as opposed to an impulsive act, can be the difference between “lethal injection and a lesser sentence”. Although a red card may pale in comparison to state-mandated execution, the findings of Spitz and his colleagues suggest football officials should take heed.

Andrew Patterson is a freelance science writer based in Melbourne, and Subscriptions Manager at Cosmos.
  1. http://dx.doi.org/10.1186/s41235-018-0105-8
  2. https://phys.org/news/2018-03-referee-abuse-men-soccer.html
  3. https://football-technology.fifa.com/en/innovations/var-at-the-world-cup/
  4. http://www.pnas.org/content/113/33/9250
  5. https://www.theguardian.com/law/shortcuts/2016/aug/02/how-slow-motion-video-footage-misleads-juries
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