OCTOBER 9 — Two Saturdays ago, the Premier League was embroiled in one of the hottest controversies in its 31-year history.
The Tottenham-Liverpool game may have ended more than a week ago but even now people are still talking about Luis Diaz’s wrongly disallowed goal for offside.
It appears that Diaz was not offside and even though Video Assistant Referee (VAR) confirmed the goal was legit, somehow the goal didn’t stand because the VAR team somehow didn’t get the message through to the on-field referees.
An audio-recording of the incident showed VAR officials falling over themselves in wanting to tell the referee to stop play yet, bizarrely, deciding not to.
One of them was even heard to say, “Can’t do anything.” which sort of reminded me of a security guard who lets a shoplifter get further and further away from a shop because, oh, it’s a bit too late to go after him.
A bit more seriously, the incident also echoes the tragic story, told by Malcolm Gladwell, of how a Colombian airline crashed in Kennedy Airport in 1990 (see note 1).
The communication between the pilot and co-pilot was a complete mess of hesitation, indecision, weird silences and, ultimately, helplessness in the face of disaster.
Basically, the plane didn’t have enough fuel to land but, incredibly, the cockpit failed to communicate this fact adequately to the control tower until it was too late.
A huge problem in the plane crash scenario, not unlike what occurred in the VAR room right after Liverpool’s goal, was what Gladwell calls mitigated speech i.e. the attempt to downplay or sugar-coat the meaning of what’s being said. As per Gladwell, we mitigate when we’re being polite, or when we’re ashamed or embarrassed about what we’re saying.
Example: Let’s say you want to ask a colleague for a report by tomorrow. However, because you’re of the same rank and you don’t want to appear bossy, instead of saying something like “I want it by tomorrow” you say something like, “If it’s possible, would really appreciate by tomorrow as I need to submit my own report by Wednesday.” (You get the picture.)
It’s simply ironic that, in everyday life, mitigated speech is a more careful form of communication whereas in the Tottenham-Liverpool scenario it worked out quite the opposite i.e. mitigated speech created more confusion and hesitation.
In the released audio of the VAR, we hear one official telling the other that although Diaz is onside, the goal was disallowed (for offside) and “Are you happy with this?”
The second official says “Yeah” but after the first official repeats it, the second one mutters an expletive. The first official then says that a certain Oli says the game should be delayed, but after that the second official says “Can’t do anything.”
Somehow, no official (among the three or four in the recording) had the guts or temerity to strongly say “DO SOMETHING!” and just tell the referee to delay the game and give the goal.
The entire VAR team seemed resigned to being unable to do anything simply because the game had restarted and nobody wanted to take the blame for not giving the goal earlier.
Needless to say, all the problems involving mitigated speech were present in the VAR scenario just as they were in the Colombian plane crash: lack of assertiveness, ambiguity and misunderstandings, passive-aggressive behaviour and, of course, delayed action.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that one of the first things the Professional Game Match Officials Ltd (PGMOL), the body responsible for refereeing games in the Premier League, promised in their public apology was the need for a more effective communication protocol.
“More effective” in this case would be more direct, less sugar-coated and less ambiguous speech in which important actions can be taken without delay.
One almost hopes this is how politicians and corporate leaders speak more often.
Perhaps this is a conversation worth having over lunch or a communication seminar: How important is mitigated speech? When’s the best time to use and not use it? What are its benefits and, of course, what dangers abound?
* Note 1: Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. Little, Brown.
** This is the personal opinion of the columnist.