Sep 30, 2014

Eastbound and Loss of Down

"A fair bargain leaves both sides unhappy, I've heard it said."
                                                                              --Jon Snow
"We didn't used to do that in the other league."
                                                                           --Jim Boeheim

sports by killre

[warning: there are quoted expletives in this post;
  you may commence quivering at any time.]

I may owe soccer a small apology.  Three months ago, I said one of the big reasons the Average American Sports Fan (homo loudmouthus) couldn't get cozy with the pastime was because it seemed soccer's Powers That Be (pretentious prigges) were just making it up as they went along.  It is at odds with our society's ingrained sense of order.  As much as we may mislike admitting it, deep down we like rules.  Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that while we don't always like to follow rules, we like to see rules always followed.  That sentiment is most true in sports.

The ordinary rules of daily life that most of us have to deal with are complicated, cumbersome, and often contradictory.  Here's one random example of two related, but disharmonious, codes of conduct that virtually everyone with a driver's license has encountered, some more often than others, whether they know it or not...

1. Vehicles on the freeway have the right of way
    over vehicles entering from the on-ramp.

2. Vehicles on the on-ramp are expected
    to achieve freeway speed before entering.

In other words, you are supposed to accelerate
like the price of dinner is at stake; and yield.

In practice, neither rule is uniformly followed.  There are a number of reasons.  For one; the specific dimensions and configuration of a given interchange may make it unworkable.  It does no good to point out those sorts of things are supposed to be regulated, too, because there are regularly employed exceptions to the regulations, especially when the right, uh, donations are made to the right politicians.  For two; I don't think the second rule has actually been written anywhere, until now.  For three; it only works if everybody involved knows the rules-- a rare occurrence made exponentially rarer as traffic density increases.

Driving, of course, is one of our most-codified and widespread activities.  I'm sure you can think of other societal realms, each with their own rules both written and unwritten.  As I said, the ordinary and everyday has strictures that are complicated, cumbersome, contradictory, which is why so many of us turn to sports for our regular dosage of order.

Don't get me wrong.  Certainly the spectacle of speed, strength, and dexterity are a large part of the draw.  So too the narrative drama of a given play, a given rally, a given game, a given series, a given season.  All these things take place, however, within a highly structured, almost religiously regulated framework.  There is a certain stark emotional brutality to the rules of our most popular sports, a sense of the absolute in their application: the sudden windswept reality of the final out, the relentlessness of the countdown clock making the outcome increasingly inevitable, and the longed-for comeback less and less likely.

Even on a smaller scale, that same sense of the absolute holds sway: the ball tiptoed off the rim, nipped the runner by half a step, bounced obliquely into the grasping maw of the linebacker, no matter how much you wish it hadn't.  There are video reviews, yes, but there are no do-overs.

On a smaller scale still, we all take a certain smidge of comfort in knowing that somewhere, in some place we've probably never bothered to check, there are finely printed paragraphs describing in painstaking detail the precise point at which a baseball can be considered caught by an oversized first baseman's over-sized glove; at what instant the football is no longer grazing the split-ended spires of grass, but has skidded the ground an inch shy of the receiver's finger-tips; the specific number of degrees from which a point guard can spin the basketball into the next bounce before being guilty of the dreaded double-dribble.  Few of us are experts in these esoteric entries, but we know there are people who are and, for the most part, we trust their expertise...

...until they screw up.

Seven months ago, collegiate basketball officials employed by the Atlantic
Coast Conference (ACC) gave me reason to question the consistency of, and
motivations behind, one of basketball's most simply intricate rules in separate,
but highly similar, instances.

Saturday night, thirteen seconds before halftime of the game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Syracuse Orange, collegiate football officials, also employed by the ACC, gave the 76,802 who were attending the game, not to mention all those watching on television, reason to wonder whether they weren't making it up on the fly.

First, though, an aside...
Orange?  Really?  The nickname of Syracuse University's varsity teams used to be the Orangemen, which is oddball enough to start with.  While no ethnic group I can think of is associated with the color orange, university muckety-mucks decided --in a decision that could be labeled the orange-is-the-new-black ruling-- Orangemen might be construed racist, so they officially dropped the last syl-lable.  (This, of course, stands in diametric contrast with a certain profession-al football team.  Red and orange have always clashed.)  I'm sure Syracuse --located in upstate New York, far from any citrus grove-- means Orange, the color.  A person could be forgiven, however, for thinking they mean Orange, the fruit, especially when (a) let's face it, it's a weird color to go with, and (b) their mascot is a man in a large, round, rough-skinned, orange-colored suit.  (I know what you're thinking: all such mascots are fruits.)  Moreover, as you probably know, nothing rhymes with orange, so it probably wasn't a popular choice with the cheer squads.

Now to the game...
With seventeen seconds left in the first half, an eleven-point lead, and possess-ing one potentially precious timeout, Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson completed a pass to his split end, in bounds, just inches from the Syracuse 15 yard-line.  The play gave Notre Dame a first down.  The clock stopped briefly so the officials could set the new down markers, then resumed its countdown.  Running, gesturing, Golson marshaled his troops into formation for what most onlookers assumed would be a simple snap-and-spike play.

For the uninitiated, spike is football jargon for hurling the ball into the ground.  When done in the proper context, it is treated like an incomplete pass: the clock stops (saving the need for a timeout), the ball is spotted as before, and the offensive unit is charged with a loss of down (which they can afford, else they wouldn't do it).  Curiously, the spike play is exempted from football's prohibition against intentional grounding.  I'm guessing the loophole exists because the alternative is to have the quarterback turn and heave the ball toward the sideline --two yards downfield, three yards over his receiver's head, and fifteen yards out of bounds-- potentially injuring bystanders and definitely making it more difficult to retrieve.

Golson took the snap and appeared, from a distance, to spike the ball.  There is a difference, however, between throwing the ball into the ground and dropping the ball onto the ground.  The former is a spike, the latter is a fumble.  A fumbled football is "live," meaning any player on the field can recover it and theoretically run with it.  One player did so.  Syracuse cornerback Julian Whigham saw the football drunkenly duck-walking across the turf, dodged a man, scooped the loose ball off the ground, and sprinted toward the far end-zone.  Belatedly, he realized the officials had blown their whistles, rendering the play "dead."  As he started to slow, however, several teammates, on and off the field, encouraged him to keep going.  He did.

The officials conferred.  They checked the replay.  No doubt more than one of them grimaced.  The replay clearly showed Golson had dropped the ball rather than thrown it to the ground.  Whigham's recovery and run-back should have counted, chopping the Notre Dame lead to four points and giving the Orange a heaping helping of momentum going into halftime.

However, Whigham's alert play was aided by the fact that he was the only man on the field who assumed the play was live.  That circumstance existed in no small part because even the officials initially thought the play dead, and blew their whistles to enforce the assumption.  Football players are taught --both through verbal instruction and the practical example of every damned play of their entire lives-- to stop playing when the whistle blows.  In effect, Whigham had resolutely, and correctly, maintained that he had the right of way even as the game's police officers were erroneously ordering him to yield.

The ACC officials conferred some more, scribbling their Formal Opinion on a note pad.  Technically, they had two choices.  One: declare Golson's fumble a spike, which it clearly wasn't, and allow Notre Dame to keep the ball with a chance to extend their lead.  Two: allow Whigham's recovery and return, which they'd unfairly aided, to stand, giving Syracuse six points with an option for more.  In their Solomonic wisdom, they issued the following set of contradictory rulings...

1. Golson fumbled, rendering the ball live.

2. Whistles were blown, rendering the ball dead.

3. In this heretofore unexplored plane of existence where a ball can
    be both live and dead simultaneously --the duck-walking dead--
    Whigham recovered the fumble.

4. Despite the clean recovery of a live ball giving Whigham the right
    to advance, we're going to deny him that right because he's orange
    because the ball was retroactively declared dead, even though it was
    still live enough to recover.


Syracuse ball, at their own 25, with thirteen whole seconds on the clock.

What happened next was a, um, hang on, let me check the calendar here, it was a, uh, Third Day of Rosh Hashanah miracle?  76,802 fans --half of them wearing orange despite their team wearing grey, and half of them wearing green despite their school colors being navy-blue and gold, and all of them temporary nominal enemies just moments before-- recovered from their slack-jawed frowning to make the venue formerly known as New Meadowlands Stadium ring with one united opinion of their own:

"Buuull-SHIT!  Buuull-SHIT!  Buuull-SHIT!  Buuull-SHIT!"

That sort of thing is reassuring.

P.S.... Bud "Walking Dead" Selig must go.

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