There are many reasons to take pleasure in the New York Football Giants’ victory in the Supreme Bowl last night, but none, I think, is more important than the fact that the Northeast Region Patriots did not manage to pick up any points on their first drive of the second half. Here’s why.
For those of you who didn’t watch the game (and what, really, is wrong with you people? are you not sufficiently cosmopolitan to follow every last detail of American sporting contests that run for a mere four hours?), the Patriots faced a fourth-and-two at the Football Giants’ 44-yard line. They punted, and the Football Giants got the ball on their 14.
But wait! Northeast Region coach Bill Belichick, after a brief but visible internal struggle, threw his red flag into the field of play, thereby signaling that he wanted the play reviewed. Pourquoi? Because he believed that the Football Giants had had twelve men on the field just before the ball was snapped (and that, you see, would be one too many). I was unaware that coaches could request reviews of plays (a) after the previous play had been completed and (b) to call for a penalty that had not been assessed, but I understand that the NFL has slightly different rules for Patriots, so I let it go. A review was conducted, eighteen more $2.7 million commercials were aired, and lo! It turned out that Belichick was right, and that Football Giants linebacker Chase Blackburn had not quite sprinted fully off the field before the ball was snapped. Prior to the review, Belichick appeared to be asking the officials whether a player could be ruled “off the field” if his body were in the air but had not fully broken the plane of the sideline, because
Now since (as you’ll recall) the Patriots were only two yards shy of a first down, this was a potentially consequential penalty: it kept Northeast Region’s drive alive—and, in fact, the Patriots held onto the ball for over four more minutes and got down to the Giants’ 25 before Brady was sacked on third-and-7, and then Belichick’s questionable decision to go for a first down on fourth-and-13 kept his team from scoring. (Since they eventually lost by 3, that decision has appeared to some Pats fans to be even more questionable now than it was at the time.)
So. As I’ve already conceded, Belichick was right on the narrow point at issue. But the review provoked a truly extraordinary discussion between Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in the announcers’ booth. Here’s the relevant excerpt for those of you who don’t want to read the whole thing:
BUCK: There’s a call that won’t make Giants fans very happy.
AIKMAN: No, but the rule clearly states that the player must be completely off the field before the ball was snapped, and it’s also pretty clear that
BUCK: Sure, but he was sprinting to the sideline, and nearly made it. It’s not as if he was standing out there on the field trying to be some kind of unnoticed extra blocker on the coverage.
AIKMAN: Fair enough, but the rule doesn’t recognize those niceties. You’re either on the field or you’re off, and the only ambiguity, so far as I can see, is whether you can be off the field if you’re in the air but still hovering briefly within the field of play.
AIKMAN: Joe, I gotta disagree with you on principle here. The letter of the rule just is its spirit. You’re either on the field or you’re not. We don’t want to open this up to infinitely-nuanced judgment calls from the officiating staff as to whether a player who belatedly realizes he needs to get off the field has removed himself sufficiently from the play in what you call a “material” sense. You need a clear-cut rule for things like this or the sport just won’t work.
BUCK: Begging your pardon,
[i]f in the course of making a substitution, either the player entering the game or the player retiring from the ice surface plays the puck with his stick, skates or hands or who checks or makes any physical contact with an opposing player while either the player entering the game or the retiring player is actually on the ice, then the infraction of “too many men on the ice” will be called.
If in the course of a substitution either the player entering the play or the player retiring is struck by the puck accidentally, the play will not be stopped and no penalty will be called.
AIKMAN: Well, that’s exactly why hockey is un-American, Joe. It’s pettifogging nonsense like that. And the fighting, as well. That kind of violence in sports is just uncouth.
BUCK: Granted. But the point remains that a sport doesn’t actually need a “hard and fast” rule in cases like this. More specifically, you have to agree that in hockey, there’s no way the Giants would get such a damaging penalty in such a crucial situation on grounds as flimsy as these. And maybe that’s a better way of doing things in the end, instead of allowing for rigid regulatory minutiae that are inconsequential for the immediate play but potentially game-deciding nonetheless.
AIKMAN: Look, Joe, I hear you. I said this was a tough break. But you remember what Wittgenstein said in aphorism 88 of Philosophical Investigations?
BUCK: I do.
AIKMAN: Well, for the folks at home, let’s put up the Wittgenstein graphic. If we could get number 88 on the screen? Thanks very much, guys.
If I tell someone “Stand roughly here”—may not this explanation work perfectly? And cannot every other one fail too?
But isn’t it an inexact explanation? -Yes; why shouldn’t we call it “inexact”? Only let us understand what “inexact” means. For it does not mean “unusable”.
And let us consider what we call an “exact” explanation in contrast with this one. Perhaps something like drawing a chalk line round an area? Here it strikes us at once that the line has breadth. So a colour-edge would be more exact. But has this exactness still got a function here: isn’t the engine idling?
And remember too that we have not yet defined what is to count as overstepping this exact boundary; how, with what instruments, it is to be established. And so on.
OK, so you see my point. We have to define what is to count as overstepping this exact boundary, and how, with what instruments, it is to be established. That’s what Wittgenstein says we should do.
BUCK: Troy, I just don’t see how you get there. I mean, that’s a complete misreading of aphorism 88—it’s like when Vinny Testaverde tried to argue that there was something fascist in the work of John Stuart Mill. Wittgenstein’s whole point is that we do not need that degree of exactness in order to play a game properly. That’s why, toward the end of 88, he says, “No single ideal of exactness has been laid down; we do not know what we should be supposed to imagine under this head.”
AIKMAN: Wow, Joe, that Testaverde shot was a low blow. But I’ll let it pass. Because the person doing the misreading here is you. Wittgenstein is saying that there are various degrees of exactness that pertain to various language-games, so that when we say “You should come to dinner more punctually; you know it begins at one o’clock exactly” we don’t require people to consult an atomic clock, and when we say “stand roughly there” we don’t actually draw them a chalk line. But that’s in ordinary language, right? For the rules of football you can’t let the engine idle, Joe. The chalk line has breadth. That’s why we call it a touchdown when the ball breaks the plane of the front edge of the goal line. It’s a game of inches and half-inches and quarter-inches, Joe, and, as aphorism 88 says, “what is inexact attains its goal less perfectly than what is more exact.”
BUCK: Yes, and then aphorism 88 goes on to ask, “Am I inexact when I do not give our distance from the sun to the nearest foot, or tell a joiner the width of a table to the nearest thousandth of an inch?” Let’s be serious, Troy.
AIKMAN: So you’re saying you prefer hockey because it’s more ambiguous than football with regard to player substitutions and less ambiguous with regard to goals?
BUCK: Exactly, for all available meanings of “exact.” After all, as Wittgenstein says, right after saying “what is inexact attains its goal less perfectly than what is more exact”: “the point here is what we call ‘the goal.’” I just think it makes sense to be more stringent and less ambiguous about goals and touchdowns, where points are actually scored and the ‘goal’ of the game is actually achieved, than about player substitutions that have no bearing on the course of play. And I’ll add that when hockey did experiment with a hard-and-fast rule, the so-called “crease rule” that disallowed a goal even if an attacking player had a skate lace in the crease but had no effect whatsoever on the play, the result was a disaster, and the NHL abandoned the rule after the infamous Buffalo-Dallas “no goal” debacle of 1999.
AIKMAN: Interesting point. But you’re still wrong about Wittgenstein, and I’m going to ask Howie Long what he thinks after the game.
BUCK: You go right ahead and do that. Howie’s got my back on this one.
Great stuff, huh? If this kind of debate interests you, it’s definitely worth reading the whole thing.