The image of major, moneymaking sports is often shaped by factors other than physical action. Cycling has become known as the sport of dopers. Pro golf has become, judging from the commercials, the sport of middle-aged men running to the bathroom and worrying about the potency of their, um, swings.
Which brings us to the NFL: Today’s pro football fans are obsessed with the officials—who this season are substitutes prone to error but no more prone to controversy than the regular refs they replaced.
Are officials at fault? I believe it’s the rules themselves. You would think that nothing would be easier than putting two teams on a field and paying them to fight over a leather ball. Yet interpreting complex rules has turned every football game into a veritable courtroom drama.
Typical television commentary: “On the official’s call, I’m not sure the arm is moving forward. From this angle it looks like he doesn't have the ball, whereas from THAT angle it appears that when he has the ball, his arm is…"
I do not second-guess the officials—just the complicated rules they have to apply. The simplest plays now provoke the most preposterous analysis.
Last weekend I saw a clear, authoritative catch… two steps in-bounds… then a hit that knocked the receiver out of bounds… then a bobble with the ball popping free as the receiver hit the ground. Ruling after interminable deliberations? – incompleted pass!
This was the mind-numbing rationale: The receiver had not "maintained control all the way to the ground” out of bounds. Which raises the question: what does "bounds" mean if a receiver still has to control the ball after he falls out of it?
In another case, the brilliant quarterback Michael Vick managed to weakly push the ball a few yards forward as he was being driven to the ground by a monster tackler. The ball rolled a few yards and was jumped on by an opponent.
A fumble, right? Well no. After many minutes peering into monitors, the refs ruled that Vick’s arm had been “in the act of throwing”—thus making his effort an official pass that could then be ruled officially incomplete, thus officially nullifying the other team's recovery. Kafka!
My friend, lawyer, and brilliant sports analyst Gerald Green cites “two hyper-technicalities that drive me nuts”:
“In one case, the ball carrier reaches out and thrusts the football forward after he's been hit and stopped short of the goal line. This provokes a tedious frame-by-frame analysis of whether he hit the ground before, at the same time as, or after he reached and thrust (puh leeze!).”
“Second,” rants Gerald, “the ball carrier lands on a fallen player and then gets up and runs for additional yardage because the body of the fallen player isn't considered to be part of the ground! What if he had landed on a hot dog wrapper? What then? Outrageous.”
Clearly football owners and players have over-thought their game. They have turned simple acts of physical violence into tedious exercises of mental torture. I say, simplify the rules… along these proposed lines…
Establishing simple rules like these would save pro football from turning into Court TV.