Spirit of the law vs letter of the law

Applied with VARying results.


While there have been many variants to the “spirit of the law vs letter of the law” ethical conundrum over the years, I don’t think any have invoked the use of VAR (video assisted referee) in world football as a premise…so here goes! With the FIFA World Cup in Qatar getting ready to start this weekend I thought it was great timing to discuss such matters, but first let us define what constitutes this ethical debate.


Indeed, the spirit of the law relates to social, moral and ethical concerns i.e. the intent of the law, whereas the letter of the law refers to matters of rules, obedience, enforcement i.e. what is the law. The former requires an honourable interpretation whereas the latter is far more literal.


The important question is: which do you follow? Spirit or letter? And why?


Generally, I would say we should follow the spirit of the law over the letter of the law. People can become too fixated on rules, technicalities and policing that they lose sight of why that particular law was created in the first place. Also, the letter is nestled within the spirit. However, claiming that it’s within the spirit of driving on a nice road to exceed the speed limit does not make a good legal defence.


Moving on to the football – as that’s why most of you are here. The sentiment of VAR ruining the spirit of football is not an uncommon point of view and I feel you could make this case about decision reviews in sports more generally. VAR is a letter of the law tool, it’s about rule obedience and enforcement, and while its use has improved the accuracy of decisions according to Premier League and FIFA statistics, has it really improved the quality of football we witness (i.e. the intent/purpose).


So, does the use of VAR ruin football? Let’s examine.


Every goal is now checked for possibilities of being ruled out leading to frequent losses of momentum and crowd buzz. Celebrations are either cut short or put on hold until the computer says no or yes with players and fans sitting around waiting, getting cold and/or bored in the process, only to be told that a player’s nose hair was beyond the last defender so the goal is ruled offside. Technically, yes (letter), but in reality, no (spirit).


Offsides, penalties and handballs are the biggest problem areas as these are the decisions where maximum ethical consideration is required. The question is, how do you legislate i.e. referee, intent? Discerning intent is a human decision, not a technical one. I feel overreliance on video replay has led to softer and poorer decisions being made which erode the joy and integrity of the sport, even if by the letter of the law they are correct…but they aren’t always – and this is the biggest issue I find people have with VAR; it’s inconsistent application.

How VAR is applied is the key thing. I think most people would be more accepting of it if it was used consistently – which it isn’t. Suggestions and allegations that VAR has been introduced to give the correct decision – not the right decision i.e. matchfixing with teams getting desired results, are not going to go away with how it is being used currently. The jokes/memes about Manchester United always getting a penalty and teams being referred to as LiVARpool or VARsenal will continue to roll in.


With the world cup just around the corner, VAR decisions will be under the brightest and hottest of microscopic lights. VAR shouldn’t be seen nor used as a panacea to poor officiating. Referee training and education needs an overhaul to improve quality, but this is costly and time consuming exercise with the more convenient and cheaper (though less optimal) option being VAR. The referee’s primary job is to facilitate a fair contest and enforce the law within the spirit of the game.


However, we must come to terms – and by we, I mean me – that video replay / video-assisted refereeing is here to stay and it is possibly out of fear/distrust of technology that I voice my discernment. Its use in other sports e.g. cricket with DRS, NBA with coaches challenges, has shown that technological advancements are only trending in one direction, so sports are going to have more involvement (or interference, take your pick) not less and it’s no longer a question of “if”, but “how” we use these tools.


Is VAR 100% accurate? No.


Is a 100% accurately called game what we want anyway? No.


As humans, we are inherently flawed beings and therefore we accept a level of fallibility in the games we participate/watch and how they are officiated. Is VAR’s involvement more help or hindrance? Is its interjection to the flow and spirit of the game worth the price? Put it another way, at what point does the letter of the law interfere with the spirit of the law? When it forgets why the law was invented in the first place.


I believe it was in The Gospels where it talks about how it is the spirit of the law that giveth life whereas the letter of the law giveth death. Spirit is about the ideal and why we do what we do (i.e. to give us life). The letter is about punishing transgressions against the ideal, and condemnation (i.e. to receive death).


Socrates followed the spirit of the law and was killed by the letter of the law, but in striking him down he become more powerful than they could possibly imagine. In this sense, Socrates is the spirit of football and VAR represents democratic Athens at that time. Using technology poorly will kill the thing that made it great.

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