Penalty Calls

Sunday, October 23rd, 2011

Adam Gopnik discusses penalty calls in football:

Has anyone stopped to think, though, that the pass-interference call in our football represents a kind of hole in the rules, a trait shared with only one other circumstance in sports that I can think of: the penalty (or, rather, the awarding of a penalty) in the game that the rest of the world calls football? In both cases, the reward — the ball moved to the spot of the foul in pass interference, or even to the one-yard line, if the interference is in the end zone; the offended soccer team getting a near-can’t-miss shot at goal — can be an almost certain score, yet the illegality itself is, nine times out of ten, extremely subtle and difficult to discriminate from all the occasions when it didn’t happen, or at least when the referees didn’t choose to call it. The difference, in soccer, between normal contact in the box and the real illegal push — like that between the normal hand chucking and bouncing in American football and true pass interference — is delicate and always arguable, or at least always argued. (Recall Don Meredith’s first appearance on “Monday Night Football,” and his now classic comment to Howard Cosell on pass interference: “I don’t really know what it is, Howard, but it’s a no-no.”)

The logical thing to do would be to reduce the scale of the reward — to give merely a free kick in soccer, or fifteen yards in football — but, and this is the “hole,” doing that instantly makes tackling the potential scorer the optimal defensive strategy. This actually happens in college football games where the penalty is fifteen yards: you just knock down the receiver blowing by, and take the penalty. The obvious injustice can’t be fixed without opening the door to an even bigger one: sounds like life.

As a consequence, pass-interference calls may look so disputable because the referees don’t voice, openly, the real criterion by which they make them. I suspect that the referees don’t evaluate the rights and wrongs of a specific push so much as mentally calculate the alternative outcome: if the man had a reasonable shot at catching the ball, or scoring the goal, they throw the flag, or point to the spot. One thing our game-playing minds seem to be very, very good at is anticipating outcomes: seeing the whole from the part and the upcoming pattern from the partial view. Studies show that good athletes — and referees, too, I think — often do not see the ball, or the goal, better than you or I would, but they anticipate the coming pattern — see where the defender is going to be before he gets there, or figure out if the receiver really had a chance against Revis in the first place. No one wants to say this, but basically the referees are calling not the play in front of their eyes but the play that would have been there a few moments later. The unfair advantage the superior athlete gets isn’t simply favoritism, or based on past credit in the bank — or, rather, it is, but it’s fully rational, and essentially fair. Revis didn’t exactly get a break on the play; he earned a kind of wrinkle in time by his play in the past. There’s something oddly cheering about this. Cameras and computers can analyze the immediate past, but only minds anticipate the future.

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