Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Natural Law and Fair Play: Protesting Incompetent Officiating in the NFL


From a very early age, children exhibit an innate appreciation for equity and fairness.  As a rather powerful illustration of the natural law, a young child without training or prompting will protest violations of the demands of simple justice: “It’s not fair.”

To build character in our children and to strengthen their sense of fair play, we often play games.  We teach our children that games have rules, which should be applied evenly to all, with wisdom and discretion, and with competence.  Those who play by the rules should be rewarded.  Those who do not should be penalized.

The appeal of, some might say the obsession for, sports in our society reflects not merely a desire for recreation and release (which are legitimate human desires) but an internal need to see good human traits modeled.  Against the sometimes random imposition of harms and garnishing of goods, sports at its ideal elevates quality above mediocrity, hard work above laziness, skill above chance, and even right above wrong.

As with any human endeavor, our ideals fall short.  But if a sports activity fails to comport with expectations of fair play on a regular basis, the pattern of inequity undermines our sense of integrity.  When the rules are not faithfully applied, we are discouraged.  If the rules are constantly flouted – or misapplied – we are demoralized.  Indeed, if those who apply the rules lack proficiency and the outcome of the contest then is determined by incompetent application, the effect over time can undermine character, because the worst of human traits are then modeled.

Such is becoming the case in the National Football League.  As the owners’ lockout of the officials stretches past the third week of the regular season, the incidents of obvious failures in application of the rules and embarrassingly poor calls continue to multiply.

Last night, the game between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks was decided on a bad call by the officials that will be remembered in football history.  But not only was the game-deciding call a travesty, it followed close on the heels of two other questionable rulings by the officials that set the stage for the closing errors.

Let me offer a brief summary for those who missed the game (the closing minutes of which are available on the embedded videos):  As the Seahawks began the final offensive possession of the game, the Packers led by a score of 12 to 7.  The game abruptly came to what effectively should have been an early end when the Packers intercepted a pass.  But the turn-over was then turned-over by a penalty on the Packers for roughing the passer, a dubious call as the Packer defender was in pursuit and already in the air to make a tackle on the Seahawk quarterback when the ball was thrown (and the tackle was clean and certainly not a hard hit).

A few plays later came an egregious example of offensive pass interference.  As the Packer defender turned to catch the thrown pass, the Seahawk receiver grabbed his shoulder pad and jerked him away.  But the resulting call by the official went in the opposite direction –- defensive pass interference.  This gave the Seahawks a first down and keeping their hopes alive.

The last play of the game, as time ran out, was the classic “Hail Mary” pass by Seahawk quarterback Russell Wilson into the end zone.  Golden Tate, committed offensive pass interference by pushing Green Bay cornerback Sam Shields to the ground.  Even the NFL’s later announcement defending the officials acknowledged that this should have resulted in a penalty for offensive pass interference and ended the game with a Packer victory.  But the errors didn’t stop there.

Packer safety M.D. Jennings leaped up the highest, caught the ball with both hands, and pulled it to his chest –- an obvious interception, which also should have ended the game with a Packer victory.  After Jennings had caught it and taken full possession, Tate managed to insert a single hand on to the ball as they wrestled to the ground.  One official came to the pile-up and signaled interception/time expired, but another official signaled a touchdown.  After review, the later call was endorsed.

NFL Rules provide:  Simultaneous Catch. If a pass is caught simultaneously by two eligible opponents, and both players retain it, the ball belongs to the passers. It is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control. If the ball is muffed after simultaneous touching by two such players, all the players of the passing team become eligible to catch the loose ball.

As the video shows, and the game commentators confirm, Jennings plainly had full possession and thus intercepted the pass.  Not only would Tate’s attempt to take joint control by wrestling for it afterward not count, he never did actually obtain joint control but only managed to get one arm on to the ball.


The NFL owners have delayed the resolution of the official lock-out, betting that the fans are so in love with the game that they will accept anything to get another Sunday of football.  As Steve Young (Hall of Fame, Superbowl Champion, former 49ers quarterback) said in the broadcast excerpt embedded here, the owners believe that NFL games are “inelastic for demand.”  They think “[t]here is nothing they can do to hurt the demand of the game.  So the bottom line is they don’t care. Player safety doesn’t matter in this case. Bring Division III officials [that is, use replacement officials from small college football]?  Doesn’t matter.  Because in the end you’re still going to watch the game.”

No, I’m not.

I am a proud Cheesehead.  I love the Green Bay Packers.  I regularly make the trip from Minneapolis to Green Bay to go to games at hallowed Lambeau Field.  Every Sunday I take a break from whatever else I am doing to watch the Packers play.

But not next Sunday.  I will not watch another NFL game -– even if my beloved Packers are playing –- until competent, career officials return to the field.  It’s the principle of the matter.


Sisk, Greg | Permalink

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The game was another testament to the wisdom of the Catholic tradition’s long support for unions (not to mention the public ownership of the Packers team itself!)

Posted by: Dave Cochran | Sep 25, 2012 9:23:25 PM

Whatever the Pack got, they deserved.

On an unrelated matter, the Patriots got stiffed on a number of awful calls (the defensive pass interference call on the Ravens 4th quarter drive was a joke), and poor Bill Belichick was just trying to get an explanation from the utterly incompetent refs about exactly how and why that Ravens field goal was good when he grabbed that replacement ref after the game was over.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Sep 25, 2012 10:01:15 PM

And I am myself one of the owners of the Packers -- with my share of stock. Labor unions are particularly important, I do agree, in the private sector context where laborers deserve a fair share of the profits to which they are contributing. And the last few games have certainly proven that the referees are every bit as valuable as the players in a credible football league.

Posted by: Greg Sisk | Sep 25, 2012 10:27:03 PM


Is that the football analogue of the argument made by Job's friends to rationalize his otherwise unmerited or undeserved suffering?

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Sep 26, 2012 3:01:15 AM

". . . the classic “Hail Mary” pass . . . Golden Tate, committed offensive pass interference . . ."

I wonder if that's what Golden Tate learned at Notre Dame?

Posted by: WSulik | Sep 26, 2012 8:37:24 AM

The introduction to your discussion is what grabbed me. I coach girl's softball - right now, it's a 16U team - and we had a game Saturday in which the girls were very upset with the umpiring. It was bad, but not horrible. Nor, in the long run, was it directly dispositive, as in the GB-Sea. game. However, it did play with their minds and caused our pitcher to walkout of the game, resulting in the need to call in a girl who hadn't pitched before. We had a melt-down and gave up 5 runs in the inning, losing the game 7-4. Because of field scheduling, I only had a brief chance to talk with the girls after the game and I knew that I needed to deal with this at the Monday practice.

I thought about it all weekend, including Sunday, when I turned on a game between the Raiders and the Steelers. At the point in the game, the Raiders were down and driving. The game commentators were commenting on the poor officiating by the (replacement) referees. The Steeler's defensive backs were playing the receivers very aggressively, practically mugging the receivers as they ran down the field. Any objective observer could see this was a violation of the rules and was affecting the game and I was thinking about my team and what I would say to them. After several replays of the various mugging plays, the Raiders were in scoring position and Raider Darius Heyward-Bey went up in the air to make a possible TD catch. He was trailed by one defender, who made what I would regard as legitimate contact at the point of the reception to try to break-up the pass. However he was also speared in the head by Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Mundy, who lead with his helmet. He was instantly knocked unconscious and lay on the ground for over 10 minutes before being taken off the field on a body board. Thankfully, he was not paralyzed and was released from the hospital the next day. Nevertheless, Munday drew no flag for this vicious, illegal hit. It's not just the game that is impacted by referees gone wild - it is player safety. The sanction of the rule is not just to penalized improper conduct - it's to prevent injury and harm from occurring.

All this brought me to a head. As manager (and a parent volunteer), I have the duty to my players to teach them good sportsmanship and the value of temperate behavior. As you correctly observe above, "... the effect over time can undermine character, because the worst of human traits are then modeled." My pitcher, the one who walked off the field, was upset because, in the course of an inning, she was called out after hitting a stand-up triple, when our batter who was on-deck picked up an over-throw and handed it to the catcher backing up 3B. Then, my pitcher thought the batter leaned into a pitch to draw a hit-by-pitch call and finally had a non-call of interference when the batter didn't back out of the box on a wild-pitch and a steal of home. What aggravated the perception of injustice was the umpire's speech to the girls on the initial interference call - he incorrectly stated (in my opinion) that he could have called interference simply for having too many players on the field in foul territory. Actually, there were just 3 girls on the field - two had been on base and had come home via the triple and the other was on-deck. The girls in the dugout were delirious because the hit had been the best of the year and that may have caused the umpire to (wrongly) conclude there were extra players on the field. In defense of the umpire, the HBP call was questionable - yet, I could not conclude that the batter did lean into the ball. It was also a close call on the batter interference.

I've gone on too long already, so I won't give you my talk, which was lengthy. But I had to balance good sportsmanship, injustice, the value of keeping your head (Kipling's "If"), and learning from the calls, correct and incorrect. And it wasn't a sermon - it was a conversation - a guided discussion.

And in the back of my mind the whole time was an observation by G. K. Chesterton who had a revelation upon taking two children to see Maeterlinck's The Blue Bird. In discussion afterward, he discovered that the children were dissatisfied with the play's outcome, because there was no reward for the faithful dog, no punishment for the faithless cat. "For children are innocent and love justice, while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy," he wrote. Which brings me back to your observation about undermining character - I have to ask myself am I undermining character when I tell the team they have to defer to the (perceived) unjust umpire?

Posted by: WSulik | Sep 26, 2012 9:24:14 AM

A sense of equity and fairness may be written on our hearts, but our hearts are trampled repeatedly by a cold and fallen world. Go Cubs.

Posted by: rob vischer | Sep 26, 2012 10:16:05 AM

Great discussion about the natural law and football. I recall a discussion with other MOJ contributors, my old profs, that the rules of football were just that, rules which did not hold the thick understanding of law as understood by St. Thomas. Yet, it would seem that the rules of NFL football do in a sense constitute a general understanding of law (human law approximating the natural law), ie "an ordinance of reason for the common good, promulgated by the one who is in charge of the community."

It would seem that all the elements apply with the rules applied by the officials as delegated by the NFL (in charge of the community) whereby the common good has been undermined such that the community itself has lost respect for the law. This lack of respect has been evidenced with coaches losing their cool and verbally abusing (Fox, K. Shannahan), and at times physically contacting (Belichick) the refs. Some players have threatened to boycott by taking a knee and offering their fines to pay the locked-out refs. Some fans, such as this post author Cheesehead, have suggested boycott as well.

As for me, I'm a fan who will decidedly not boycott. I want to see how this drama plays out. I want to see a coach and players get a really bad call, even lose the game the way the Packers did, and admit, it's out of their control, and yet continue to play hard in spite of the difficulty. I hope to see more sportsmanship and less whine with that Cheese. I hope to see arete in spite of a breakdown of the common good.

Posted by: CK | Sep 26, 2012 10:29:27 AM

I would have liked to see Golden Tate tell the referee he was mistaken.

Posted by: N.D. | Sep 26, 2012 10:38:10 AM

Also, the NFL, players, coaches and fans should gain some perspective. After all it's just a game. If we as a people throw fits over the common good of the NFL breaking down, I wonder what we might do if the local, regional, or national common good broke down? Would we act with arete, or would we show our colors as true barbarians?

Meanwhile for actual breakdowns of the common good, see and pray for Spain:


Posted by: CK | Sep 26, 2012 10:58:31 AM

CK, your point about people acting like barbarians is being borne out by the actions of the coaches and players. Let me be clear-Roger Goodell and the owners are the primary parties to blame in this debacle. Their stubborness towards the union refs are allowing the Shield to be open to both legal and public blame when someone gets hurt because they weren't protected by an incompetent referree. But the players and coaches are feeding this-the players by taking advantage of the situation by taking cheap shots and the coaches by not restraining them. Football in general is getting enough bad publicity before this took place and this will only help to sink the game further with younger people.

Posted by: Ed Dougherty | Sep 26, 2012 12:21:44 PM

I agree that Goodell and the owners are the primary parties to blame. According to an NPR story, the sticking point to resolving the referee impasse is the payment of $30 million into the referees' pension fund over seven years. That's about $4.25 million per year, which is roughly 0.045% of the $9 billion that the NFL makes each year. This is clearly a power play by the owners (in anticipation of an inevitable fight with the players' union about salary caps?), and it is the fans and striking referees who suffer most.

Posted by: Bill Collier | Sep 26, 2012 12:53:17 PM

Alright, they're back. Resume programing.


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