On Certainty and Illegal Substitutions

by Michael Bérubé on February 4, 2008

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 Blackburn had indeed jumped to get off the field. But the replay showed that Blackburn was about a yard shy of the sideline when the play began, and not in the air at all, so the non-ruling on the field was reversed, and the Football Giants were assessed an “illegal substitution” penalty of five yards.

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 Blackburn was just short. It’s a tough break for the Giants, but still, it was the right call.

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.

BUCK: But Troy, aren’t you reading the letter of the rule at the expense of its spirit? There’s no sense in which Blackburn was part of the play. His being a step shy of the sideline had no material effect whatsoever on the punt or its return.

AIKMAN: Joe, I gotta disagree with you on principle here. The letter of the rule just <i>is</i> 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, Troy, but that’s just not true. In professional hockey, where player substitutions happen on a far more frequent and fluid basis as players skate shifts of 30 to 40 seconds, everyone understands perfectly well that a player can be “off the ice” even if he is not completely off the ice. As long as a player is leaving the ice, is within five feet of the bench, and not involved in the play, he’s OK. <a href=”http://www.nhl.com/hockeyu/rulebook/rule17.html”>Rule 17</a> clearly—to use your term—states that “players may be changed at any time from the players’ bench provided that the player or players leaving the ice shall be within five feet (5′) of his players’ bench and out of the play before the change is made” and that

<blockquote>[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.</blockquote>

<blockquote>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.</blockquote>

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 <i>Philosophical Investigations</i>?

BUCK: I do.

AIKMAN: Well, for the folks at home, let’s put up the Wittgenstein graphic. If we could get <a href=”http://www.galilean-library.org/pi9.html”>number 88</a> on the screen? Thanks very much, guys.

<blockquote>If I tell someone “Stand roughly here”– may not this explanation work perfectly? And cannot every other one fail too?</blockquote>

<blockquote>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”.</blockquote>

<blockquote>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?</blockquote>

<blockquote>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. </blockquote>

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 <i>we do not need</i> 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. <i>The chalk line has breadth.</i> 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. Blackburn was, for all intents and purposes, out of the play. And as for the definition of “touchdown,” well, that line-breadth plane-breaking thing really is a problem. I think Michael Bérubé has it right, in the end—hockey really is a structurally superior sport in every way. In hockey, you’ll recall, every portion of the puck has to cross the goal line; if any part of the puck remains on any part of the line, even if seven-eighths of the puck is in the net, it’s no goal. Which makes a lot more sense, in the end.

AIKMAN: So you’re saying you prefer hockey because it’s <i>more</i> ambiguous than football with regard to player substitutions and <i>less</i> 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”: “<i>the point here is what we call ‘the goal.’”</i> 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 <i>did</i> 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 <a href=”http://proicehockey.about.com/od/history/f/no_goal.htm”>the infamous Buffalo-Dallas “no goal” debacle of 1999.</a>

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 <a href=”http://chefofthefuture.blogspot.com/2008/02/not-again.html”>the whole thing.</a>

{ 6 trackbacks }

Wittgenstein and the Supreme Bowl at Σπιτάκι
02.05.08 at 12:44 am
What I Do With My Life « Wintry Smile
02.05.08 at 4:58 am
Justified True Footballblogging § Unqualified Offerings
02.05.08 at 12:44 pm
Cheryl’s Mewsings » Blog Archive » Sporting Certainties
02.05.08 at 1:32 pm
Lawyers, Rules and the NFL « Controlling Authority
02.05.08 at 5:54 pm
The Super Bowl and Wittgenstein « The View from Alexandria
02.06.08 at 5:50 am



P O'Neill 02.04.08 at 11:56 pm

What will the philosophers make of that never played last second of the game?


Rob 02.05.08 at 12:06 am

You thought coaches could challenge while the play is going on? That’d be different. Yes if it wasn’t the Super Bowl Belicheck wouldn’t have had the time to look at the replay, but blame Fox for getting those extra TV timeouts.

and yes plays can be challenged for non-called non-judgement penalties (too many men on the field, illegal touching)


Michael Bérubé 02.05.08 at 12:07 am

Well, I’m no philosopher, but I’ll tell you what I make of that last second — I think the Giants should’ve taken the chance to run up the score. It would’ve been the sporting thing to do.

And yes, I blame Fox.


John Emerson 02.05.08 at 12:18 am

To think that this motherfucker saying anti-American shit is the Paterno professor of TV studies. It’s a travesty!

I think that the habit of litigation has something to with this. As I keep quoting leibniz as having say, “If there were enough money in it, people would argue about the multiplication table”.


J— 02.05.08 at 1:00 am

Sorry to go off topic so early in the discussion, but on this Super Tuesday Eve, I’m in a situation I’m sure Professor Bérubé will understand. You see, I used to consider myself a Democrat, but since 9/11, I’m outraged by the U.S. media’s coverage of the Tet Offensive and, like John O’Sullivan, demand the Democratic candidates addresses this issue before tomorrow.


Michael Bérubé 02.05.08 at 1:10 am

That’s a timely and important question, j–. I will add only that its timeliness is underscored by the recent rerelease of Rambo, a cultural watershed which suggests that we have somehow already reached the point in Iraq at which we should begin composing our counterfactual and compensatory revisionary histories about Gulf War II.

And John, I’m merely citing Joe Buck. I didn’t say whether I agreed with his important and cogent analysis.


dogfacegeorge 02.05.08 at 1:20 am

“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 Blackburn had indeed jumped to get off the field.”

If Belichick did not know whether someone in the airspace above the field was “off the field” or not, shouldn’t that have been his problem? If a ref gave Belichick a mid-game seminar explaining the rule, wasn’t that ref helping one side beat the other?


Delicious Pundit 02.05.08 at 2:04 am

I’m still mad at Joe Buck for that disproportionate reaction when he called Richard Rorty “disgusting” after his presentation at Lambeau Field.

Somehow this is all reminding me of “The Bloomsbury Group Live at the Apollo.”


monkey.dave 02.05.08 at 2:13 am

I think that it’s instructive that Wittgenstein never tried to explain the “involved in active play” clause of (real) football’s offside law.


Other Ezra 02.05.08 at 2:19 am

With regards to football referees making judgments in consideration of the rules of hockey, I refer you to House Resolution 2898:

“A justice or judge of the United States shall be removed from office on impeachment for … [e]ntering or enforcement of orders or decisions based on judgments, laws, agreements, or pronouncements of foreign institutions, governments, or multilateral organizations …”


Zarquon 02.05.08 at 2:41 am

Wittgenstein knew little about sport.


Lord Acton 02.05.08 at 2:44 am

Oh man …

Just the thought of Aikman saying “Wittgenstein” is enough to make my head explode.



joseph duemer 02.05.08 at 2:56 am

Berube jumps the shark.


Policeman 1 02.05.08 at 3:02 am

I think I should warn you that you are in serious danger of being arrested for philosophizing without a license and impersonating a Sports Personage. This parody of Wittgenstein without even a decent mention of Kant must cease immediately.


rm 02.05.08 at 3:38 am

And Marx is saying the ball was out.


John Protevi 02.05.08 at 3:43 am

One of Roy Edroso’s commenters beat me to this, but I wonder if Dr. Bérubé’s would care to comment on the liberal fascist nature of this Under Armor ad. I mean, Leni Riefenstahl called and she wants her aesthetic back! Course, if you listen to The American Specatator, it’s not fascist at all, compared to Barack Obama’s ad …


Mike 02.05.08 at 3:44 am

You’re a little wrong with the extra TV time-outs. The Redskins made a similar call when they beat the Giants (I think it was them) during the regular season.

There are guys up in the booth looking over replay for exactly those sorts of things.


John Protevi 02.05.08 at 3:46 am

The random use of the possessive (as in “Bérubé’s” above) is also a little known liberal fascist tick. I believe the poker players call this a “tell.”


mds 02.05.08 at 3:54 am

Just the thought of Aikman saying “Wittgenstein” is enough to make my head explode.

Which is why Aikman always calls him “Wiggy” instead. Including on his half of the tattoo.

Anyway, Wittgenstein was a berk with a penchant for brandishing fireplace pokers, so we can naturally disregard everything he ever said about American football and moral rules.

Berube jumps the shark.

Hmm, could a professor be ruled as having “jumped the shark” if his body were in the air but had not fully broken the plane of the fin?


epist 02.05.08 at 3:54 am


I was considering a career in nomological consulting, but to be Frank, I’m a little skeptical now.


JP Stormcrow 02.05.08 at 4:02 am

Good to see the right-thinking end up at roughly the same place on the map of the imagination.

In our soccer-involved household we were lampooning the hypertechnicality of football last night as illustrated by a potential key to the game being whether a player not involved in the play had barely made it across the sideline or not just before the ball was snapped.

and later in that thread: Very appealing for analytic philosophy types.

I think Buck and Aikman’s argument ranks up their with Tommy Lewis’s 1954 “you can’t cross the same sideline twice” demonstration and Roethlisberger’s Plane of the Goal Line Paradox from Super Bowl XL for great moments in football philosophy.


P O'Neill 02.05.08 at 4:12 am

I believe that the Roethlisberger’s Plane of the Goal Line Paradox had an antecedent in retired funny man Dennis Miller’s single amusing contribution to his MNF days, noting that the goal line in principle extends all the way to infinity in each direction.


JP Stormcrow 02.05.08 at 4:52 am

retired funny man Dennis Miller’s

As in Dennis Miller is still working, but he retired the funny a while back, I assume.


Andrew 02.05.08 at 5:05 am

@14, he jumped the shark at “northeast region”


romy b. 02.05.08 at 7:30 am

#16: the accounts I heard had Marx arguing offsides.

Unfortunately I missed that Aikman-Buck exchange in real time; was in the kitchen refreshing the guac and uncorking another bottle of chardonnay.

Off to read the Whole Thing now– thanks for your diligence, MB.


Michael Bérubé 02.05.08 at 7:42 am

Berube jumps the shark.

Yes, but did the shark have two fins in bounds before I jumped over it? That’s the important question.

I wonder if Dr. Bérubé’s would care to comment on the liberal fascist nature of this Under Armor ad.

Now that’s just eerie. Because when I saw that ad, the very first thing I thought was, you know, Mussolini liked to wear Under Armor too. Is it true you can buy that underwear at Whole Foods?


romy b. 02.05.08 at 7:56 am

The pectoral fins have to be across the line. They’re kinda analogous to our knees.

As for underwear and Whole Foods:



romy b. 02.05.08 at 8:03 am

Oh, wait: that should have been dorsal fins and hips. Time to upgrade the reading glasses.


Dave 02.05.08 at 9:46 am

@11, as a Briton, I can only whoop with joy at the full content of that quoted para:

“Entering or enforcement of orders or decisions based on judgments, laws, agreements, or pronouncements of foreign institutions, governments, or multilateral organizations, other than orders or decisions based on the common law of the United Kingdom.”

Colonials! Colonials!!

They do realise Britain didn’t become the UK until 1801, a little *after* 1776?

But seriously folks, what about the bit in the Constitution where it says international treaties are the supreme law of the land…Like the UN Charter, for example?


thompsaj 02.05.08 at 10:40 am

I think there’s also room to discuss the illocutionary and perlocutionary levels of Belichek’s challenge.


MR. Bill 02.05.08 at 12:53 pm

There was a football game?


rea 02.05.08 at 1:10 pm

I’m old enough to remember the days before video technologoy advanced to the point of permitting instant replay. Back in that ancient era, it would have been technically imposssible for the referees to review the tape ex post facto (although note that this article advances the heretical claim that instant replay was invented by Hockey Night in Canada, a decade before its first use in American football: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instant_replay ).

If Chase Blackburn had played in the 1956 game (Superbowl -XI) would he have been illegally on the field?


mds 02.05.08 at 1:15 pm

Berube jumps the shark.

Yes, but did the shark have two fins in bounds before I jumped over it? That’s the important question.

I submitted a jape much like this last night, only to be informed that my comment was in moderation. This morning, no sign of my comment, yet by sheerest coincidence “Professor” “Bérubé” comes up with a similar extremely hilarious vignette. I call shenanigans. Five yards. (Plus, my comment contained bonus previously-unreleased material about tattoos and fireplace pokers which made it even funnier.)


Thom Brooks 02.05.08 at 1:22 pm

Why the problem with the New England Patriots…? Sounds like somebody is sore his team isn’t half as good…

And it is worth noting the team is ‘New England’. New England is not like the rest of the United States, as the region has a distinct identity (and, no, not as a place that is more strict with rules than elsewhere).


Kelly 02.05.08 at 1:51 pm

[T]he point here is what we call “the goal.”

My goal is to rid the world of TV networks–starting with Fox. Now, anyone have any ideas as to how we can pragmatically dismantle Fox? I’m listening.

By the way, I bet Wittgenstein would have liked watching the Super Bowl…


John Emerson 02.05.08 at 1:56 pm

There were and incredible number of small furry animals, pigeons of all sizes, and other birds in this year’s Superbowl commercials. And lizards.

I was especially glad to see the underrated and oft-ignored badger get some well-deserved attention.

Also, new twists on racism. Asians are less likely to take offense than other Untermeschen.

I am told that the unintelligible language spoken in one of the commercials was largely Swedish. Again, a people not prone to taking offense except on others’ behalf. (Probably Swedes are protesting the other ads as we speak, but ignoring the slurs against the Swedes. What a bunch of losers.)


John Emerson 02.05.08 at 2:00 pm

New England has a distinct identity for what? Suburbs, vacation homes, comic Irishmen, relics of the bygone Yankee past, Canuck illegals, private schools of all kinds, whiteness…..


MR. Bill 02.05.08 at 2:08 pm

Yeah, Like Louisiana doesn’t have a distinct identity (Cajun, Creole, jazz, Katrina Devastation)or my Southern Mountains doesn’t have a reputation of rumrunning, archaiacism in craft and social attitudes and drooling violent hillbillies (and I try to do my part there).


Pete 02.05.08 at 2:21 pm

“I was unaware that coaches could request reviews of plays (a) after the previous play had been completed”

Huh? It seems a bit extreme to expect a coach to predict the future before the whistle is blown. Reviews are *always* after the previous play and before the following play snap.


Peter 02.05.08 at 2:31 pm

An NFL game = 3+ hours of TV commercials for cars, beer, life insurance and limp-d*ck drugs, interspersed with very brief snippets of actual, you know, play.


crack 02.05.08 at 2:33 pm

How is having to fully cross a line more exact than any part on a line? Don’t they just devolve into the same problem?


Anderson 02.05.08 at 2:47 pm

I was unaware that coaches could request reviews of plays (a) after the previous play had been completed

That should be “next” or, better because longer and more Latinate, “subsequent.”

My thought exactly. I mean, why the fuck challenge the non-call after only one play? Why not wait until the next quarter & see how the game goes?


chris darrouzet 02.05.08 at 3:12 pm

An observation only: this distinction between a hard and fast rule (Aikman’s position) and rules that should be interpreted in the spirit of the game (Buck) is one that distinguishes officiating in what Americans call soccer, everyone else, football from American football — in part. In soccer refereeing, the idea is to let the game get on, let them play, with minimal interference from the referee — the rules do not say you cannot kick or push another player, only that you cannot do so violently or in a way that secures, in the judgment applied by the referee, an unfair advantage that means something in the play then and there. So in this sense, Buck is entirely right, there should be no penalty here as the Giant’s player was clearly not part of the commencing play. But on technical matters, US football is officiated differently: technical matters are handled strictly. Untechnical matters, like linesmen “holding” are judgment calls on practically every play. Where US football also resembles soccer officiating (and basketball too) is when we get to rules that protect quarterbacks, such as the famous “in the grasp call” that altered a major game a couple of years ago, turning a fumble into a tackle. Officiating sports, in theory, rule practice is a highly complex matter, which does exhibit many of the issues that society faces everyday in governance. Cheers.


charles pierce 02.05.08 at 3:14 pm

If it wasn’t for New England, you’d all need passports to go to NYC, ya Tory bastids!


stostosto 02.05.08 at 3:57 pm

Oh, American oddball…


Eric 02.05.08 at 3:59 pm

The play Belicheat should have challenged was the Bradshaw fumble. A Patriot clearly had the ball and was down on the ground. During the scrum, Bradshaw took the ball back, which the rules do not permit. That non-challenge had a significant impact on the game.


Jamey 02.05.08 at 4:37 pm


Gregg Easterbrook called: He wants his shtick back.

Seriously, this reads like a more grammatically-correct TMQ, without cheerleader pix.


Michael Bérubé 02.05.08 at 5:16 pm

OK, as to the question of when Belichick threw the hanky: I was indeed befuddled by the extra commercials. Because the Super Bowl is interrupted for commercial breaks only (1) at the ends of quarters, (2) after a change of possession, (3) after a score, (4) immediately after a kickoff or punt return, (5) during player injuries, (6) when a team calls time out, (7) when viewers have gone more than eight minutes without seeing a Bud Light commercial and are thereby in danger of forgetting to drink more Bud Light, and (8) belonging to the Emperor, there were actually two commercial breaks after the punt. When we returned from four-minute commercial break # 1, we learned that Belichick had challenged the play — in perfectly legal fashion. We then returned to our regularly scheduled commercials while the play was reviewed. I was left with the impression that Belichick had had an ungodly long time to ask for a review. On meta-review, then, my suggestion that Northeast Region was bending the rules is overruled.

As for “Northeast Region”: on further review, I agree that the locution is too Easterbrooky, and I penalize myself fifteen blog posts and a second-round hyperlink to be named later. But I honestly thought the name would have wider appeal than the famously parochial “New England” (which, of course, was adopted in place of “Boston” in 1971). And thanks to Thom Brooks for reminding us just how parochial!

As for whether crossing all of a line is any clearer than crossing any part of it: no. But determining the plane of the front edge is the problem, whereas in hockey, all you need to do (not that it’s always simple in practical terms) is to determine whether there’s any white ice between the puck and the red goal line.

And as for mds: excuse me, my old friend, but just what did you think “comment moderation” was for?


nitpicker 02.05.08 at 5:36 pm

If I understand my Schroedinger–and I do not–then that final, unplayed second means that the Giants (and the Patriots) have both won and lost the Super Bowl.


Thom Brooks 02.05.08 at 5:38 pm

I am a bit surprised by some of the reaction to my remarks.

First, I do not deny for a moment that if New England has a distinct identity (beyond “Northeast Region”), then no other part of the United States (or even world) cannot have a distinct identity, too. Nor can I see why anyone would have made this leap.

Secondly, New England’s identity isn’t just clam chowder, particular colonial history, etc. although there are many commonalities amongst these small states. Let me give a perhaps unusual example regarding state universities. All state universities outside New England have ‘in-state resident’ and ‘non-state resident’ tuition fees where the ‘in-state’ is much less than the ‘non-state’. The only exception is found with state universities in New England. Here there ‘in-state resident’, ‘New England resident’, and ‘non-New England resident’ tuition fees where the first two are fairly close and much less than ‘non-New England’. This is one of many areas where New Englanders (like me, from Connecticut) mark a shared identity and, so, the ‘New England’ Patriots isn’t wishy-washy, but spot on.


Rob 02.05.08 at 5:40 pm

Well it would be the same problem if the puck was carried across the line. So the real problem then is carrying the ball.


Michael Bérubé 02.05.08 at 5:55 pm

Just tweakin’ ya, Thom. I love New England.

The region, I mean.


JP Stormcrow 02.05.08 at 6:13 pm

A lot of back and forth here, but it is good to know that there are still some pure sports out there like hockey (now that it has fixed the crease rule) where it is not possible for some trivial crap—the configuration of a piece of equipment for instance—to be pulled out in the middle of a Championship amd materially alter the outcome.


P O'Neill 02.05.08 at 6:37 pm

We’ve somehow managed to get this far in the thread without noting another oval-balled sport where video review of probably undeterminable states has a big effect on outcomes.

Like Old England not getting a try against South Africa in the World Cup final.

With the additional complication that a try, unlike a touchdown, requires a touchdown, so the precise coordinates of the ball as well as the leg both matter.


Bloix 02.05.08 at 8:10 pm

The Patriots website advises that “the season ended with an unfortunate result for the Patriots.” Kind of like Hirohito announcing that “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”


Righteous Bubba 02.05.08 at 8:33 pm

Yes, it’s kind of like that.


Dave Maier 02.05.08 at 8:34 pm

Very nice post. I hate to address the substance, but unfortunately I have no dazzling witticisms to share.

First, of course Joe’s reading of §88 is much better than Troy’s. (I like Joe’s line: “I do” – nice touch.) Troy needs to re-read that whole line of argument, going back to, say, §65, where Wittgenstein addresses what he sees as the main objection to his preceding discussion about naming: i.e., that he has helped himself to the idea of various “language-games” without specifying exactly what makes something “language” in the first place. So in §66 he introduces the famous example of “game” as a “family-resemblance” concept, and much of what follows discusses the senses in which particular games are constituted by rules. §88 is the culmination of that discussion, the moral of which is basically the last sentence of §87: “the sign-post [that is, the rule] is in order [is perfectly “exact” in the relevant sense]—if, under normal circumstances, it fulfills its purpose.”

Still, I think Joe’s comparison to hockey (and his reading of §88 in that context) is only partly successful. It’s fine to argue that the too-many-players rule in football is artificially exact, and that the criterion should be more as it is in hockey, i.e. that it should be invoked only when the player(s) in question are not “out of the play.” But as written, hockey’s Rule 17, while more appropriate by these lights, seems almost as “exact” in the disputed sense. It doesn’t just say “it’s okay if the player is out of the play”: it goes on to specify when that is, even going so far as to give a particular distance from the bench. The difference may have less to do with differing standards of exactness in general than with the fact that football, unlike hockey, is made up of distinct “plays” with appropriately specified beginnings and endings, which I’m surprised Troy didn’t bring up.

I see that the questionable point about goals and touchdowns has already been questioned, so I’ll refrain from questioning it further. The real question is: what would Wittgenstein say about the neighborhood play, the phantom tag, and the wide strike (none of which are in the rule book)?


Michael Bérubé 02.06.08 at 12:14 am

Thanks, Dave. The whole exchange is indeed weighted in Joe’s favor, and Aikman is clearly cherry-picking — though I agree that the Testaverde line was a low blow.


Handmaiden to the Sciences 02.06.08 at 12:16 am

Michael Bérubé, your imaginary discussion is very funny, and also insightful into the issue of applying rules. Thanks! A serious reply: rather than inferring that the difference in how substitution rules are applied in hockey vs football speaks to which game is better governed, isn’t it possible that the application of this rule in particular reflects the difference in how the games are intended to be played? Hockey is meant to be a very fluid game with lots of substitutions. Football is intended to be a stop-and-go game with fewer substitutions. Therefore, it makes sense for a football game to be governed with more precise attention to the legalities of substitution, and for issues of this sort to be reviewable. Wittgenstein’s point at §88 is that standards of precision should be appropriate to the intended effect of their application, and I think we can infer the same attitude towards whether or not to invoke them at all in various circumstances.


Bloix 02.06.08 at 1:25 am

Some rules are designed to be applied without any need for an understanding of the game or sport. Precision is the ideal, and judgment in a broad sense is not wanted. Sometimes officials are actually replaced by machines, which can detect events that human beings can’t. (It’s not possible to judge the winner of a high-level swimming competition by eye, and in fencing a score is registered by the closing of an electric circuit.)

Some rules require a sophisticated understanding of the game. The most famous example is the offside rule in soccer. After defining what it means for a player to be “in the offside position,” the rule continues:

A player in an offside position is only penalised if, at the moment the ball touches or is played by one of his team, he is, in the opinion of the referee, involved in active play by:

interfering with play
interfering with an opponent
gaining an advantage by being in that position


You can see by the offside rule, it is possible to distinguish between the two kinds of rules within the rule itself.

Note that the offside rule gives rise to more arguments than just about anything else in soccer. It’s pretty generally agreed that the rule is a problem. If it were possible to create an offside rule that didn’t require judgment, soccer would do it. The need for judgment is a flaw in the game — not a disaster, but a flaw.

So one should assume that the writers of the rule book understand the considerations and are capable of indicating how a given rule should be applied. If they decide not to call for judgment, then presumably they decided that mechanical application is better for the game. Obviously judgment is necessary as to whether the literal requirement of the rule is satisfied, but judgment regarding the nature or purpose of the rule is not called for.


patrick noel 02.06.08 at 2:09 am

“Pettifogging”? “Pettifogging”?

I always knew that shifty-eyed Aikman was a foul-mouthed blackguard.

Properly civil football fans spent their Sunday watching the Boca-River SUPERclasico (Tivo’d the night before to fill the dearth of gentlemanly sport available the next day, of course).


The Constructivist 02.06.08 at 3:32 am

Can’t wait for your next post in this series the next time a big rules dispute comes up in the world o’ golf….

Did I make you look?


Indecisive 02.06.08 at 4:08 am

What the discussion b/t Aikman and Buck is missing is that the rule, in its exactness, has led to further development of game strategy, literally making it a different game. New strategies based on this rule include variations on the no huddle offense where the offense snaps the ball much more quickly than expected in hopes of catching outgoing defensive men on the field (used to perfection a number of times by my U of Illinois team this year), and trick plays (usually punts), where the eleventh offensive player runs toward the sideline, appearing to try to get off the field, but stops just short of the line and turns downfield as a receiver when the ball is snapped (the Bears did this for a 40+ yard gain back in the early 90s). The debate doesn’t seem to be between the spirit and the letter of the rules, but what kind of a game the rules (and their enforcement) allow to be created. Loosely-called rules create different game conditions than strictly-called rules, which leads to a somewhat different game.


Michael Bérubé 02.06.08 at 5:54 am

Handmaiden and indecisive are exactly right — or exactly enough to matter. Hockey is indeed supposed to be more fluid than football, hence the (appropriate) definitional fuzziness about changes on the fly. (Though I feel compelled to add that changes on the fly are themselves very cool in a kind of structurally-superior kind of way . . . more or less.) And the rigidity of football’s rules has indeed been an incitement to innovative no-huddle and special-teams discourse, thereby producing all manner of “resistances,” as University of California head coach Michael Fukolt suggested in 1977.


John Protevi 02.06.08 at 2:28 pm

as University of California head coach Michael Fukolt suggested in 1977

It’s not often recognized that Coach Fukolt took his famous “eye in the sky” coaching tower idea from his bitter rival, MIT head coach Nathan “Natty” Chompers.


Thom Brooks 02.06.08 at 6:17 pm

Of course, Michael, I don’t love New England enough to actually continue living there… (I left more than a decade ago.)

The real question is not whether the Patriots should be from “New England” (or “Northeast Region”), but why the Giants are said to be from “New York” when, well, they aren’t.


mpowell 02.08.08 at 7:15 pm

piggy-backing on indecisive’s comment: the exactness of the rule is relevant in football b/c of the strategy adaptation that follows. You always want to have the right players on the field at any given time, but there are rules relating to both the offense and the defense that govern the teams’ actions in this regard.

And the NFL also has pretty good adaptation of these rules. If you participate in the play as a 12th man, this is a 15 yard penalty and an automatic first down, I believe. So there is an appropriate distintion made between true cheating and just getting caught with your strategic pants down.

Finally, in football, breaking the front plane of the end zone is the appropriate distinguisher for a touchdown. The football is being carried, not struck across the line so it is usually easier to tell when the nose has crossed, not the back end cleared, the line. Furthermore, the rules lead to an easier discernment of the situation with regard to the pylons: if you touch a pylon with the football before going down, it is a touchdown.

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