The sports world has never been more tightly controlled than it is today. In soccer, we have seen the adoption of goal line technology to ensure that a goal is in fact a goal. In football, baseball, hockey, and wrestling, we have seen the adoption of in-match reviews to eliminate specific missed infractions. Sports officials want to make sure that the games are played properly to the letter of the law. The result is longer matches and games, all in the name of eliminating ambiguity in pivotal moments.
Despite this era of review and oversight, gray areas still abound in nearly every sport. By gray areas, I mean that there is still room for subjective judgments that make a difference in contests. We see them all the time, and often get up in arms about their effects on games. Gray areas happen when the ways sports are actually played produce situations where there is no objectively correct outcome. Officials often have room to render subjective rulings that affect a game’s outcome, which leaves their decisions up for debate. In other words, despite the amount of reforms leagues have instituted to eliminate ambiguity, gray areas still matter. Here are some of the most obvious gray areas in specific sports:
Football- Defining a Catch
Was there ever a time a catch was a cut and dried issue? On a regular basis, we see receivers catch a ball, but have it waved incomplete for one of many reasons. The ball may have hit the ground. It may have moved while in the receiver’s arms, suggesting that it may not have been under full “control.” The ball may have landed nose down on a defender’s back while the receiver kept one foot inbounds, but only one hand in the field of play. Absurdities aside, the forward pass, a basic tenet of the sport, is nonetheless still causing problems to this day.
The gray area of a catch is not just an annoying ambiguity. It changes outcomes, and makes the game harder for fans to understand. As if football isn’t already the most complicated sport around, imagine trying to explain the NFL’s catch rules to a foreigner- there are reasons the sport doesn’t appeal to the rest of the globe, and these inconsistencies are partly to blame. A recent example was Dallas receiver Dez Bryant’s seemingly clutch grab in the 2014 NFL Divisional Playoff game against the Packers. In the fourth quarter, Dallas trailed by five points when Tony Romo hit Bryant on a go route inside the Packers’ five-yard line. The catch seemingly put Dallas in position to score the go-ahead touchdown, but was overturned when officials reviewed the catch. The referees claimed that Bryant did not “maintain” possession and the ball touched the ground (even though Bryant held on to it all the way). Due to the overturned call, Dallas ultimately lost the game 26-21.
The call led to general upheaval the following Monday on sports radio, and justifiably so. In the Bryant case, the officials determined that the ball touching the ground was, in fact, more important than the receiver holding on to it throughout the play. The league summarily reformed the catch policy to eliminate the term “football move” and include a new one: “initial contact.” The truth is, however, that this reform will not be the last regarding NFL catches. Jerricho Cotchery's catch in the last Super Bowl proves the enduring ambiguity of the rule even after reforms are instituted (1). Although a catch is a basic and central component to the game, it stands as a gray area that can make or break a team’s season. Sorry, Cowboys.
For those unfamiliar, wrestling is a sport greatly dependent on the notion of “constant action” between grapplers. Often, once one wrestler gains a lead in a match, there is an impulse to ride the match out by protecting the lead. This is most similar to dribbling to the corner flag or delaying a set piece in a soccer game. Referees relentlessly urge wrestlers to keep working with warnings like “action!” Refs are able to award points to an opponent whose adversary looks to be stalling on purpose. Some common examples of stalling include circling away from the opponent in neutral position, or dropping to simply hang on to the opponent’s ankle when in top position. In either case, these tactics can make it very difficult for a trailing wrestler to have a chance to equalize.
The reason stalling is a giant gray area in wrestling is that referees typically interpret that rule on their own- every official has their personal threshold for the infraction, and some are very quick to call stalling compared to others. TV commentators repeatedly expressed confusion over stalling calls during the most recent NCAA Championships. In the 174-pound final, Ohio State’s Myles Martin led Penn State’s Bo Nickal late in the first period 2-1. Martin and Nickal had repeatedly traded shots and collar ties, when the referee suddenly pulled a stalling warning on Martin. Commentator (and former NCAA champ) Jim Gibbons immediately noted “Sometimes I don’t know what stalling is anymore.” And for good reason: Martin was obviously engaging Nickal, not avoiding contact as much as he was avoiding a shot. This sort of event is common in the sport, yet few are able to consistently decipher when and how stalling should be called. Stalling rules are constantly being reformed, most recently in 2015 when the NCAA ruled that a wrestler had to constantly work to improve his position in neutral within a five count. Even with these alterations, stalling is still a puzzle for average fans and former champions alike.
These are just two examples of how gray areas still matter in sports. The ambiguous football catch continues to astound observers, while stalling calls in wrestling can blindside even the most knowledgeable fans. Both can have deep effects on a team or athlete’s season, and produce almost-endless debates and reform measures. In the next edition of the series, we discuss some of soccer and basketball’s gray areas. Draymond Green may or may not be featured. Tune in next week to find out!