Saturday, December 23, 2017

Hoyos: The Outlaw’s Possession, or, How in a Just World Jesse James Scored a Touchdown and Sent the Pats to Ignominious Defeat

HoyosWhen I first saw James’ reception in replay, I thought that by rule it was clearly not a catch.  A player falling down while making a catch must maintain control of the football after making contact with the ground.  Following the game, NFL officials referred to it as “surviving the ground” when explaining the decision to overturn the call on the field.  So, no catch, no touchdown, and yet another disappointing loss to the Pats.But the question of whether it was a catch (and hence touchdown) according to the existing rule is different from whether the rule is the correct one.  So, after further, um, review, I want to suggest that law, policy, equity, and custom all favor a rule that would recognize James’ catch as a catch.

First possession requires both an intent to possess and actual, corporeal possession.  This question is somewhat complicated in the football context.  With wild animals or baseballs, the property belongs to no one.  But in football, the offense is deemed to have “possession” of the football.  When the quarterback (usually) throws the ball to a receiver, the intent is not to abandon possession of the football but to transfer possession from the quarterback to the receiver.  Nonetheless, whatever the quarterback’s intent, the defensive players have as much right to possession of a thrown football as the offensive players.   An interception is akin to adverse possession of the football.  We might call the pass, then, constructive abandonment, or partial constructive abandonment.

Since there is no intent to abandon possession in constructive abandonment, the rules regarding possession should favor the offensive team.  In James’ case, James clearly had an intent to possess, as he reached his hands out to catch the pass thrown from the quarterback.  James also physically possessed the football, making a conscious decision after securing the football to reach the ball out across the goal line.  The NFL even has a rule that once the football crosses the goal line, the play is over.  Since James had an intent to possess, and physically possessed the ball long enough to make a decision as to what to do with it, he clearly had possession.

The question of course is what to do with the fact that James was falling to the ground as he made the catch.  This is where policy comes in.  Wholly apart from winning or losing, scoring should be a high priority for almost any sport.  Scores are exciting for both players and fans, and the rules should encourage scoring plays whenever possible.  

Since the NFL has already determined that a play is dead as soon as the ball crosses the goal line, the question should be whether the offensive receiver had possession at the decisive moment when the ball crosses the goal line, not whether the receiver “survived the ground.”  Surviving the ground can make sense if the receiver catches the ball within the field of play where there is no decisive moment, and the first down marker is less defined than the goal line.  Since the player is still within the field of play, completing the catch after surviving the ground respects both the offensive team’s possession and the constructive abandonment of the pass.

The decisive moment rule facilitates scoring in a way that is consistent with current NFL rules.  As mentioned, the NFL already deems the play dead when the ball crosses the goal line.  Moreover, the NFL has also determined that the ground cannot cause a fumble.  Putting one and one together equals a touchdown for James.

The decisive moment rule could also be applied to side lines and end lines at the back of end zones.  This would also reward the toe-tapping skill that only the best professional receivers have mastered.  (Steelers wideout Antonio Brown, by the way, does not need such an accommodation.)  Side lines and end lines, like goal lines, are also clearly marked on the field.

Equity also lies in favor of James’.  Dan LeBetard made this case on his sport show “The Dan LeBetard Show with Stugotz.”  In essence, players are brutalizing their bodies in the “forceful acquisition of real estate,” and thus should be rewarded in any close call.  The reward should be the most exciting outcome.  In this context, the reward would be the touchdown.  But in other situations the reward could be, for example, the turnover.  In James’ case, no Patriots player caused the loss of control of the football; it was only the ground.  Without any countervailing equity concerns, the scales of fairness lie in James’ favor.

Finally, custom also lies in James’s favor.  Time and again, watching the sports commentary following the game, voice was given to the idea that “this has always been a catch.”  James himself confessed that despite playing football most of his life, he now doubted his ability to understand what a touchdown is and isn’t.  And once again, calls were issued to change a rule that nobody understands, or even if they understand it, disagree with it.  If the common perception recognizes James’ catch as a touchdown, then refusing to recognize it jeopardizes the legitimacy of the NFL’s rules and product.

So while the call may have been correct according to the NFL’s rules as they currently exist, the rules do not adequately capture or reflect basic ideas about first possession.

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