While watching the Redskins beat the Cowboys in the 2010 season opener (did I mention how sweet that was?), I heard Bob Costas at halftime complaining about a late-game call made by an official in the Detroit- Bears season opener.  Calvin Johnson caught a 30-something – yard reception in the back of the end zone, then seemed to lay it down, or spike it, at the end.  Referee Gene Steratore and the league called it by the rules – Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 1 (8-1-3-1), to be precise – and the reception was no more. 

Costas said, in part, “When the letter of the law seems at odds with common sense…. If it looks and feels like a touchdown, it should be.”  

With all due respect for Bob, as well as common sense, and granted that it looked like a clean catch, to say that common sense should prevail in sports is a little misleading. Sports are peppered with examples of “silly rules” – rules which would seem to have no bearing on the level of skill, or demonstrable dominance of one team over another:

  • the dropped third strike in baseball that allows a batter to advance;
  • 12 men on the field in football, even when the 12th man is a lumbering tackle 30 yards from the action;
  • the technical foul in basketball on a time-out called with none remaining;
  • the signed golf card, or the requirement to walk the course, in golf.
But when you think about it, what rules in sports aren’t silly? When sports games are designed, there is no requirement to apply common sense. It’s a GAME. Games are meant to be diversions from our real lives.  They are not meant to be extensions of them.

Each rule is as valid as every other rule. That’s the definition of sport. So you can argue what the ref saw. But you can’t argue that a particular rule is unfair, or nonsense, except that it may create an inequity between positions, such as pitcher versus  batter, or quarterback versus linebacker. What can be said to be common sense about the requirement to get three outs to retire a side, rather than say, two? Or Four? What is common sense about making a kick-off in play after ten yards, so that either team can recover? Doesn’t the same arbitrary element apply to every rule in any game? 

What makes games fair in a sense most of us can agree on is that rules exist, and that they’re applied fairly.  That is much different than insisting that the rules themselves be fair. The latter has no meaning that I can see. Gotta disagree on this one,  Bob.  How about you?



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    Jack Downs is a mystery writer, teacher, and the author of two novels and several short stories. Jack lives in Carroll County, Maryland with his wife and three children..


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