This is a repost of something I wrote for the 2015 Eagles Almanac, in which I explored the increasing over-complication of NFL rules. A few lines are already dated (see that last paragraph, for example), but with each passing week, I’m more confused than ever. Most games, most weeks, seem to be decided by the inconsistent application of incoherent rules, and it only seems to be getting worse.
The images are from my short-lived Existential Ref blog on Tumblr.
* * *
Do you know what a catch is?
This is a sincere question. Can you define, in clear terms, what constitutes a catch in the NFL? Can you be sure this definition will still be precise and true by the middle of next season?
The NFL’s simultaneously overzealous and underprepared officials have caused me to doubt the most basic of sporting actions. I think I know what a fumble is. I can correctly identify intentional grounding about sixty percent of the time. I’ve read the explanation of the tuck rule enough times that I could repeat it to you, but I don’t understand it. Roughing the passer and pass interference penalties are called with all the predictability and logic of tornadoes—there are circumstances more likely to produce them, but you never really know when or where they’ll strike.
On Sunday afternoon, a world-class athlete makes a superhuman catch in mid-air between two defenders and rather than cheering, we collectively sink deeper into our chairs and wait a few days until an unseen board of reviewers adjudicates the catch-worthiness of that play. Maybe sometime Wednesday afternoon, we quietly pump our fists in memory of that catch we think we saw.
Did the player catch that ball? It looks like he did. It’s in his hands. It was in his hands when he fell to the ground. It was in his hands when he stood up. But maybe it wasn’t a catch because the player failed to defy the basic laws of physics by preventing the ball from shifting after it touched his hands. Maybe he blinked too many times while falling to the turf. Maybe he failed to fill out the proper paperwork before the game announcing his intention to enact a football catch.
Or not. Maybe it was complete. Maybe it looks like it was complete and there’s not quite enough indisputable evidence for the on-field CSI unit to determine exactly what happened. Who among us, after all, can see into the soul of the ball? If the ball itself does not consider itself to have been caught, can it be said to have been caught at all? And anyway, why should we take it for granted that the object we’re seeing is even a ball? It is an article of faith that the ball is actually a ball, but short of an on-camera dissection by a disinterested third party, we can’t know its exact nature. Furthermore, without the benefit of some kind of cosmic instant replay system, there’s very little indisputable evidence that proves we even exist.
And also: what the fuck happens if the guy catches it but then he fumbles?
When confusion mounts, the rules are clarified through the addition of a few more clauses. Mid-week, the league issues a press release telling everyone either, Don’t worry, we checked and we got it right, or, worse, Actually we screwed that up. We offer no apology and no recompense.