Rules vs. Accepted Standards and the NFL

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A difficult and pervasive issue involves the optimal degree of specificity with which statements of law should be expressed.

Should lawmakers take the time and trouble to try to define laws with great precision and particularity? Or should laws be expressed in more general terms, leaving some judgment and discretion to the enforcer of the law (police officers, lawyers, judges and juries) to define the more exact contours of the law in a particular case? In short, should the law be written as a "rule" (with great precision) or as a "standard" (more general statement)?

This is the exact predicament that the "lawmakers" who create rules for our professional sports leagues face. How specific should the rules of a sport be? Why not make all rules as specific as can be?

The answer is that the "laws of sports" should be standards, not rules. Overly specific rules are in most cases inapt. Inapt case in point: the National Football League.

1. Let's start with professional hockey. Most of the NHL's rules are written as general, nonspecific standards. For example, "charging" is defined as "the actions of a player who, as a result of distance traveled, shall violently check an opponent in any manner." See all the room there for referee discretion? All checks are violent. How violent must a check be to constitute charging? How much distance must be traveled? The rule is silent, implicitly leaving the matter to the judgment of game officials. Other NHL rules are similarly expressed as standards. "Hooking" is "the act of using the stick in a manner that enables a player to restrain an opponent." That's it; that's the whole rule. "Elbowing" is "the use of an extended elbow in a manner that may or may not cause injury." These are significant rules for the sport of hockey that are regularly applied. Notice how simple and brief they are. Notice also that the rules of hockey seldom change. The same hockey rules we played under as kids still govern the sport today.

2. Now let's use our imagination to think of the rules for the NFL. We have to use our imagination because the NFL refuses to release its rules, as far as I know. (I've been searching for an official rulebook forever.) Why does the NFL keep its rules secret? I suspect it's because the NFL does not want to allow people like me to examine its work. You see, the NFL does not follow the approach of the NHL and most other sports leagues. It does not express its rules in the simple language of standards. Instead, the NFL's rules are expressed with great specificity. For instance, here's the NFL's nice, straightforward definition of a "catch":

"A player is in possession when he is in firm grip and control of the ball inbounds. To gain possession of a loose ball that has been caught, intercepted or recovered, a player must have complete control of the ball and have both feet completely on the ground inbounds or any other part of his body, other than his hands, on the ground inbounds. If the player loses the ball while simultaneously touching both feet or any other part of his body to the ground or if there is any doubt that the acts were simultaneous, there is no possession. This rule applies to the field of play and in the end zone."

Add this, under "Note 1," the "going-to-the-ground" clause.

"A player who goes to the ground in the process of attempting to secure possession of a loose ball [with or without contact by a defender] must maintain control of the ball after he touches 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, there is no possession. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, it is a catch, interception or recovery."

[I found this by poking around on Google; apparently someone has a copy of the rulebook.]

3. Let's keep in mind that this is just one rule (or part of one rule, for all I know; there being a "note 1" implies there are more). It would be eye-opening if the NFL allowed us to see the whole thing. Imagine the contradictions in these voluminous rules, the problematic constructions, the unintended consequences? In other areas of rule-making, seldom is law expressed with the kind of specificity the NFL employs. When we do see such specific rules (for instance, the Internal Revenue Code, or rules respecting ultra-hazardous substances), we also see large numbers of lawyers employed in drafting the rules (either at the legislative or regulatory level), applying them, critiquing them, and challenging them. All this lawyering is good for the rules, as lawyers can point out ambiguities and identify needed corrections. Not to sound arrogant, but really could the work of the NFL Competition Committee withstand lawyerly review? But wouldn't the rules be improved if we could all take a peek at them and offer comments?

[Just look at "note 1" above. For how long "after" must a player hold the ball for there to be a catch? Could the player juggle the ball (after completing all the requirements of the rule and note 1), yet still be deemed to have made a "catch" as long as the ball does not touch the ground? Note 1 seems to allow it; the rule seems to prohibit it. Plus note 1 seems to create bad incentives: after a receiver has made a touchdown catch while falling to the ground out-of-bounds, a defensive player should proceed out of bounds and dive into the receiver in an attempt to dislodge the ball. If the ball comes loose, no touchdown catch. At least the rule/note seems to allow for such conduct. That's a bad incentive.]

4. There are good reasons why very few rules in sports are expressed with the kind of specificity the NFL employs. It's too hard to write them successfully. Highly specific rules cannot account for every possible situation. Inevitably, the rule-writers find themselves adding qualification after qualification, rendering the rule lengthy and unmanageable. Further, in the sports world (unlike in federal taxation or transportation of hazardous materials), rules have to be applied instantaneously and by people (athletes, referees) under some stress. With tax compliance or other highly specific rules of law, lawyers bill by the hour. What is the NFL thinking? Why take hundreds of words to define a "catch"? Children playing ball games or even backyard football know whether or not they have caught a ball. Why can't the NFL trust its referees to make the same, easy determination?

5. Watching an NFL game lately can have extended moments of tedium. The replay review, the endless chatter about technical definitions and their application, the absurd outcomes. (It's like being a student in federal taxation! Notice how the NFL RedZone channel, dedicated to showing the most exciting action, switches away from a game the moment a replay review is initiated.) Calvin Johnson's obvious touchdown catch is not a catch because he flipped the ball to the referee while getting up off the ground? The officials lack "indisputable video evidence" that Miami came up with Ben Rothlisberger's goal-line fumble even after the replay showed a Miami player handing the referee the ball? These are easy calls to make. Yet the league says the calls were "correct" in that the officials applied the written rule correctly. Yes, the refs weren't wrong; the rules are wrong, written to cover every situation but leading in some situations to absurd, patently unintended and unjust results. Games have been won and lost because the written rules were inadequate to meet the question presented.

What will the NFL do in the wake of these debacles? Write an additional amendment to the rules, I'll bet.