The NFL’s Technocrats

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant (88) is unable to catch a pass against Green Bay Packers cornerback Sam Shields (37) in the fourth quarter in the 2014 NFC Divisional playoff football game at Lambeau Field, January 11, 2015. (Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports)
By insisting on perfection, the league has made a bad rule worse.

Release the white smoke.

Last Tuesday, in an act of startling unanimity (startling in part because the product they oversee is now one of the nation’s most polarizing brands), NFL owners formally eliminated item 1 of article 3 of section 1 of rule 8 of the league’s rulebook. The offending passage? The comically overwrought “going to the ground” language that has bedeviled casual fans for years, robbed celebrated receivers of obvious catches, and almost certainly taken years off the lives of Las Vegas’s sportsbook regulars. “A player,” the now-withdrawn rule stated,

is considered to be going to the ground if he does not remain upright long enough to demonstrate that he is clearly a runner. If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball until after his initial contact with the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete.

Somewhere, one can almost hear a Soviet official applauding the clarity of the prose.

Yet, baroque writing aside, the real problem with the existing catch policy was always the gap between the rulings it engendered and what millions of viewers could see with their own eyes — a fissure that nearly caused rioting in Pittsburgh last season and in Dallas several years ago when Jesse James and Dez Bryant, respectively, were denied what might have been game-winning receptions. Though the James play was bad (the tight end did everything but deliver a speech about sports and domestic violence before losing the football), the Bryant case was especially egregious. Bryant caught the ball (sorry, that’s begging the question: he received it into his hands for an observable period of time), took two steps, dove, slid for a while, then bobbled the football for about as long as it takes a human to blink before securing it again. If what Bryant did wasn’t a catch, I remember a friend saying at the time, then there simply are no catches, and we need to reconsider whether securing a thrown object is actually a component of the human experience. Fast-forward several seasons, and that same friend now winces every time a Cowboys player tosses the ball to a referee at the end of a play. “Sure, the guy rolled over twice, got up, took several steps, greeted a teammate, spoke to the coach on the sideline, signed a quick autograph, and lined up for the next play before parting with the football, but did he ever truly possess it?!

Given such circumstances, one might expect fans to be delighted by the revision of the rule in question. Alas, one would be wrong, and for good reason. The new rule is worse. Much, much worse.

As has been widely reported this past week, the NFL’s new catch policy proposes what is, at heart, a metaphysical response to the old rule’s problem. Players will now be deemed to have made a catch if, in addition to controlling the ball and planting two feet in bounds, they complete a “football move.” And what will qualify as the latter? The new rule lists three possibilities: “a third step,” “reaching/extending for the line-to-gain,” or “the ability to perform such an act” (emphasis added). To put it another way, the updated language will require referees to make real-time decisions whose variables include not only weight, speed, momentum, and gravity but the vagaries of human desire as well. If they do so incorrectly, they will be second-guessed and shamed by coaches, players, fans, commentators, and their superiors in the league office. So, too, will game length continue to slip the bounds of the finite as somber men at computer monitors ponder individual frames, searching fervently for the moment in time when a ball carrier didn’t act but might have done had he so wished.

The new system, in other words, will look a lot like the old one, with the single wrinkle that an excessively complicated system characterized by subjectivity will now be transformed into an excessively complicated system characterized by subjectivity whose inputs are partly invisible. That this will be done in the name of “correctness” or “getting it right” or “finding a solution” will only add insult to the injury of joyless games that peak in anticlimax and last forever. The updated rule will fail just as the last one did, because — conservatives of the world, hear your motto — there is no solution.

On the field, the court, or the track, we watch not despite but because of the terrible limitedness of these bodies — the sheer joy of seeing those limitations, for an instant, transcended.

There is no solution. A sentiment of such austere beauty is worth saying twice. Just as the standing commission in charge of the seventh quarter of the five-year plan cannot pronounce more wheat into the collectively owned field, the technocratic delusions of the NFL rules committee — “Just give us more time/money/data/power and we’ll fix everything!”  — cannot do away with the fact of human imperfection. Any attempt to do so is doomed precisely because of the nature of the species doing the wishing. We’re humans. In the end, despite the nightmarish visions of many, there’s no fixing that.

The irony, of course, is that our imperfections are what draw us to sport in the first place. (Would you watch robots play NFL football?) On the field, the court, or the track, we watch not despite but because of the terrible limitedness of these bodies — the sheer joy of seeing those limitations, for an instant, transcended. To filter that pleasure through a legalistic and convoluted rules and “review” apparatus is, literally, a non sequitur. It does not follow.

Which is why my own proposed wording does away with technicalities both visible and invisible. “A catch occurs,” I’d have it, “when a player catches the ball. No challenges; no looking at screens.”

An oversimplification? Maybe so. But we might start enjoying the games again.

Graham Hillard teaches English and creative writing at Trevecca Nazarene University.

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