The systemic nature of sports, or the real problem with football

Today is Thanksgiving, perhaps the most tradition-steeped of American holidays. I’ve been thinking a bit about a particular Thanksgiving tradition lately, and I’ve come to a conclusion:

Football – at least the American kind – is a really badly-designed sport.

Take the end of the Tampa Bay – New Orleans game a few weeks ago. That game ended with the Buccaneers threatening to score a touchdown in the game’s final minute, which could have sent the whole shebang into overtime. Tampa Bay’s quarterback ran to his left, found a receiver in the end zone and delivered a perfectly serviceable pass for what looked like six points.

But it was not to be – you see, as soon as that particular receiver caught that pass in the end zone, he became guilty of illegal touching. Apparently that’s what happens when you step out of bounds, come back in bounds, and catch a pass when the quarterback is out of the pocket – at least, that’s according to the referee’s explanation after he threw a flag on the play.

Then, because the game clock had ticked to zero during the play, the game was over. Honestly, there’s no less satisfying way to end a sporting event than having an official explain what you just saw, why the play doesn’t count, and that the game is over so go home now, all you sunburned drunks.

It was ridiculous to watch it unfold, but it’s no real surprise that things like that happen, for the simple reason that football has way too many rules. Illegal touching. Illegal formations. Illegal shifts (whatever they are). Ineligible receivers. Intentional grounding applies when the quarterback is in one place but not another. And all that goddamn clock-stopping, for pretty much any reason at all.

Because of the oddly analytical way my mind works, I tend to look at games and sports as systems. Every system has a set of rules that governs the movements and actions of its component parts – when we’re talking about a sport, the rulebook determines how the players, coaches, officials and ball interact with and respond to each other.

So if these rules are set up properly, what could we expect if we had two identical teams play against each other from now until the sun burns out? Well, if neither side has even a slight skill advantage over the other, we would expect each team to win basically the same number of games over the next few billion years. Ideally, the rules would be set up in such a way that the “better” team wins more often than it loses. In other words, as fans, we expect skill – and not the rulebook – to be what determines who wins and who loses each game.

I’m not arguing that the rules of football give either side an unfair advantage. Certainly in the NFL, from what I’ve seen, we can generally expect the “better” teams to win more games over a long enough time frame. But I am saying that football requires way too many rules to get to this equilibrium, and that that excessive complexity is an artifact of poor design. In design, as simple as possible is almost always better.

Look at international soccer as a counterexample. The rules are certainly simple enough. And because of that, the game flows. It’s always moving. When the officials do stop play, it’s usually quick and fairly unobtrusive.

But in football, that’s not the case. Any rule infraction requires a couple minutes’ worth of official conference, explanation, and enforcement. The flow of the game is disrupted far too often, and for ridiculous things like an illegal formation or a holding call that nobody can find on instant replay.

(Of course, you could just compare the rulebooks. While the printed NFL’s Official Playing Rules and FIFA’s Laws of the Game are both about the same number of pages, the latter is much simpler, featuring graphs and a lot of white space. The former sometimes reads like a cross between stereo instructions and mortgage paperwork.)

The NHL used to have a similar problem. Used to be, it was illegal to send a pass across any two of the lines in the middle third of the ice. The two-line pass rule slowed down the game, which is bad enough – but it also favored teams with more gifted skaters while negating passing skill. Then there was the rule against offensive players having so much as a toe inside the goal crease on a scoring play. That was even worse than the two-line pass, because it took longer to resolve and often overturned goals scored in the run of play.

Fortunately, the NHL wised up and ditched both rules. Those rules degraded the product, and they were both unnecessary to bring the system into the desired equilibrium (which is a fancy way of saying that they didn’t make it any more likely that old-fashioned hockey skill would win out more often than not).

There’s a lot to like about football. The forward pass is one of humankind’s most beautiful creations. But the game has little natural flow because of the excessive (and excessively complicated) rules. Start getting rid of rules – like holding, for example, or almost anything that stops the game clock – and the game opens up and picks up a truly exciting, back-and-forth flow.

But I’m not sure that NFL fans really want that. A lot of them say they like the stoppages in play and the multiple replays from different angles. It gives them a chance to catch their breath, to let their minds process what they just saw.

And at a more basic level, if you start changing the rules of the system, you change its nature. Take away the holding penalties and the “skill” of clock management (could you hear my eyes rolling as I typed that?), and you might have a better-designed system that produces more free-flowing and entertaining result … but you don’t have football anymore. Football as we know it requires all those rules and stoppages and resets. Without them, you get a different equilibrium result.

So fine. Enjoy your clunky, kludged-together sport, football fans. There’s plenty of beautiful soccer out there for me to enjoy, thank you very much. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get ready for the Detroit Lions’ annual Thanksgiving Day loss.

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