Lawyers, Rules and the NFL

Anyone watch the Super Bowl? I did, mostly. Two hundred years from now, George Will will be remembered for one thing, and one thing only — this bon mot: “Football combines the two worst things about America: it is violence punctuated by committee meetings.” He is right, of course, but he left out the worst part — The Rules.

 Football is minutely governed by a seemingly infinite number of arcane, highly-nuanced rules (illegal batting?), many of which are incapable of consistent enforcement (if, as we are assured by the cognoscenti, offensive holding could be called on every play, but is not, then why call it at all?). Worst of all is the insistence on “getting it right,” which gave us video review, which involves grown men looking at a tape of a wide receiver falling to the ground frame by frame, over and over again as if it were the Zapruder film, in order to determine whether the ball shifted ever so slightly in his grasp before his knee kissed terra firma. Who the Hell cares? One thing we learn as lawyers is that most of the time, close enough is good enough. We stop striving for ideal justice, and try to get reasonably close to fairness in the short amount of time that we have on this Earth. We know that baseball has it right — yes, there are bad calls, but over time they even out, and if they have a disproportionate impact in the short run, well, that’s still a smaller price to pay than would be spent in a futile attempt to eliminate all error. Also, we suspect that a better world would have fewer rules, not more, and since sports are supposed to be a better world, we resent having our time on the couch interrupted by an achingly pious explanation of the application of the Tuck Rule. We get enough of that crap at work.

So, you can imagine how I felt when the Prince of Football Darkness threw that #%*%@ red flag after his team punted on 4th and 2, and then got the ball back on a 5 yard penalty when the video showed a 12th Giant player sprinting off the field, but about 2 feet from the sideline when the ball was snapped. If there was ever a case for the application of the “no harm, no foul” principle, this was it. But no — In the NFL, The Rules must be enforced, no matter how unjust their application, no matter how harsh the consequences. Some people actually like this. We call them fascists.

This is a long introduction to this link.

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8 Responses to Lawyers, Rules and the NFL

  1. laurabethnielsen says:

    I will link the prince of football darkness, but you have to tell me who it is.

    And people, if you think jeffaregularworkinglawyer is fanatic (maniacal? crazed?) about sports, you should meet his son. He packs all this sports passion into a kid-sized body.

  2. jeffaregularworkinglawyer says:

    Bill Belichick, the coach of the New England Patriots, is the Prince of FD. And I am actually fairly moderate in the attention I pay to, and even more in the importance I attach to, sports. But I was consumed by them as a child, before I discovered girls and money (and music and politics, but a cynic might say that that’s the same thing), and my young son is now.

  3. laurabethnielsen says:

    I am pretty sure you meant to say girl (singular).

  4. catpitch50 says:

    I’d have to agree that several of football’s instant replay challenges enforce the more trivial rules, and that most of those rules are a tad too nit-picky (New England’s 12th man challenge from Super Bowl XLII). But I don’t know if I’d call it fascism. There is no room during the course of sporting event for debates over whether harm was caused by that 12th man’s presence on the field. Allowing such explanations as “he was trying to get off the field” would create an awfully slippery slope that pro-athletes would eventually use to gain a competitive advantage. The lines are drawn rather clear– anything outside of those two thick white strips is out-of-bounds– and, as long as coaches can challenge such infractions with instant replay, such rules would be best left in place.
    Major League Baseball, on the other hand, seems to want nothing to do with the instant replay. Yet it certainly would prove useful in situations like AJ Pierzynski’s dropped-third strike call of the 2005 playoffs. One play can dramatically shift the outcome of a game and an entire season, so why not make sure the call is correct?
    Both sides of this instant-replay debate have their merit. But I must think that some middle-ground can be found without doing away with the rule books. Baseball could utilize replays to check if a ball is fair or foul, if a tag was made or not. But calling balls and strikes would be taking it too far.
    Football would do well to reevaluate which rulings can be challenged (they already limit challenges to certain types to plays). A more narrow catalog could rid the sport of the penalization of “no harm” fouls. The 12th man challenge, for one, could be done away with– if instant replay is needed to prove that a team had too many players on the field, then those extra players probably didn’t have that much of an effect on that particular play. But until those rules are changed or instant-replay is modified, expect savvy coaches like Belichick to use them to their advantage.

  5. jeffaregularworkinglawyer says:

    I don’t want to do away with the rule books. I’m not an anarchist, I’m a lawyer. I don’t dislike law, I dislike legalism. Law must serve the interests of society, not vice versa, and rules must serve the interest of the game, not the other way around.

    Other games do a better job of tempering justice with mercy. How often do you watch a college basketball game, and hear the announcer laud a “good no-call” by the referee — ignoring a technical violation because the transgressor’s team gained no advantage therefrom? The game’s the thing, my friend, not the rules that govern it. Yet the NFL’s instant replay system exists to deny the very possibility of discretion, and elevates a soul-crushing legalism over the the dictates of wisdom, of compassion, of decency. Plus it stops the action, and results in even more ads for Bud Light and Viagra in my living room. You know, one of these days, my nine-year old son is going to ask me why a man should call a doctor if an erection lasts longer than four hours. And don’t get me started about Flowmax.

    As for why not allow instant replay in baseball to fix game-changing calls like the A.J. Pierzynski dropped third strike — two reasons. First, I am a White Sox fan. I liked that call. Second, it wouldn’t be worth it. “Getting it right”, even in big games, is just one goal among many. Finishing the game before Hell freezes over is another, equally important goal, to me, anyway. It’s bad enough that Fox can’t broadcast a World Series game in less than 4 hours. If we have to wait 5 minutes while the umps figure out if the second baseman really touched the bag after every double play, while Joe Buck and Tim McCarver natter on, I won’t care whether the call was right, or even who won the game, because I will shoot myself.

    But because a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds (I just made that up), I must say that I would support instant replay for fair and foul calls on home runs only. The issue doesn’t come up that often, the situation is usually important, because home runs are important, and the replay is usually clear. In that situation, the benefits would, I think, outweigh the costs.

  6. catpitch50 says:

    I hear what you’re saying, but this discretion, this mercy and compassion that you say are crushed by legalistic systems like the instant replay, they have no place in professional sports. There is no room for mercy and compassion. If pitchers worried about hurting that guy crowding the plate, they’d get knocked out of the game so quick it’d make your head spin. Professional sports are constantly evolving. The field is continuously narrowed. Team sport thrives under the “us vs them” mentality– save the compassion for your teammates. Officiating in professional sports leaves no room
    for mercy either. It’s not the official’s job to keep the game close by instituting discretion or even wisdom, for that matter. Call the play by the book. That’s all that is asked and that’s all that should be expected. The less gray area, the better. As the Redskins reminded us after getting thumped by the Patriots, it’s the offense’s job to score, and it’s the defense’s job to stop them. Cut and dry.

    As for the time considerations of baseball and the instant replay, I can hardly imagine a couple challenges significantly lengthening the game. Besides, ask any professional player, or any fan of a team on the rough end of a missed call, if they could spare an extra 3 minutes to check the call…. I think they’d be okay with it. Football limits the number of challenges a coach can make per game, so why not baseball too? I’d also have to say that I’d favor instant replay in almost any aspect of a baseball game, save the calling of balls and strikes. (I’m sure there are instances where it would be a little over the top, but those could be ferreted out just as they ought to be in football.)

    Finally, with regards to your comments on ads and commentators, I couldn’t agree more. Hopefully networks will realize that plenty of kids are watching the “big game” too, and they’ll tone it down a bit… maybe just save it for late night tv. That’s where the discretion is really needed.

  7. laurabethnielsen says:

    Plus it stops the action, and results in even more ads for Bud Light and Viagra in my living room. You know, one of these days, my nine-year old son is going to ask me why a man should call a doctor if an erection lasts longer than four hours.

    I nominate the above for the funniest thing ever posted on this blog.

  8. jeffaregularworkinglawyer says:

    When I speak of tempering justice with mercy, I don’t mean bending the rules in favor of the weaker party. I mean refraining from enforcing them when the result of strict enforcement would be contrary to our sense of morality. Prosecutors exercise their discretion like this all the time — the equivalent of the “good no-call” is basketball.

    What’s interesting about baseball from a legal perspective is that there are both written and unwritten rules, and that some of the unwritten rules concern how strictly the written rules are enforced. For instance, the fair/foul ball rule is strictly enforced — no foul ball is ever judged “close enough” to fair. But it is understood that a second baseman turning a double play need not actually touch second base, as long as he is close enough. How close is close enough? Occasionally, an umpire will let us know that a second baseman has strayed too far, and not call the out. But where any given umpire will draw the line on any given day remains unpredictable. While some “rules are rules” types grumble, most fans accept this lawless state of affairs for two reasons. First of all, we are used to it. Second, we know that strict enforcement of the rule would have undesirable effects — fewer double plays, and more injured infielders.

    Another interesting thing in baseball has been Major League Baseball’s recent attempt to get more uniformity in umpires’ interpretation of the strike zone. Over the years, the strike zone as called by umpires diverged more and more from the strike zone in the rule book. Rule book balls, either low or outside, were called strikes, and rule book high strikes were called balls. Further, the amount of deviation differed quite a bit by umpire, and better pitchers were given wider strike zones, accentuating their natural advantage over their lesser competitors. The result was uncomfortably close not to anarchy, a lack of rules, but to totalitarian government — rule by fiat.

    Technology exists that would eliminate this problem completely. With lasers and computers, strikes and balls can be called automatically, strictly by the book and always right. In fact, the system, called QuestTec, is in place in about half of all major league stadia (I speak Greek!). But instead of using it to call balls and strikes, MLB uses it to look over the umpires’ shoulders — it produces a rating, telling them what percentage of ball/strike calls they got right. Presumably, get too many wrong, and you lose your job. In effect, MLB has decided to tolerate some error and deviation from the rules — even though it need not do so — but not deliberate error and deviation (or at least not too much), or gross incompetence. The interesting question is whether this has resulted in umpires trying to enforce the rule as written, or merely reducing the amount of deviation they consciously allow.

    LB — It’s still a very new blog.

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