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Officials Ruining a Good Sport

Football has become the most fouled-up game on Earth.

A great sport is being ruined for the American public by two things--rules and officials. The rules are so ridiculous that “invisible planes,” “uncatchable balls” and “the ground caused the fumble” are now commonly heard phrases. And the officials--referees, umpires and linesmen--are so hyperactive calling penalty after penalty that we waste 3 1/2 hours watching them .

I am not a zebra-basher. The men in stripes do their duty to the best of their abilities. But they are doing it too damn well. They enforce minor football rule violations with the obsession of meter-maids. They are killing this sport, softly, with their flags.

No official wants to be seen as a do-nothing. His performance is graded, same as those of the players. None is willing to stand around, spotting the football. He feels a compulsion to call something . He sees 300-pound men with interlocked arms and calls holding from 30 feet away. He sees flinching and calls it “false start.” He sees incidental contact and calls interference.

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I am so sick of beautiful touchdown runs being called back. Let the players play. These are grown men who can take care of themselves. Unless the guilty deed is so obvious, so flagrant, that it borders on third-degree battery, why can’t we just let football players play football?

Going out of bounds is going out of bounds. It is something the naked eye can see . But this other foolishness, this insistence that a fumble doesn’t count because “the play was dead,” or this guesswork on late hits that come a split-second late, is sucking the enjoyment right out of football. Nobody watches these games to watch penalties.

Football’s rules have become so absurdly complex that a tackler can’t touch a player too high, too low, too late, from this side, from that side, when he slides, when he’s headed out of bounds, from behind, on the mask, on the helmet, five yards downfield, more than once, until the ball touches his fingertips.

He must have one foot in bounds, two feet in bounds, report himself as an “eligible receiver,” have “control of the football,” be given “a chance to catch the football,” be near enough that it wasn’t “intentional grounding,” be tall enough that the ball was deemed “catchable,” or be stripped of the football while on his feet because if he drops the ball while falling, the play will be “dead” because he is “in the grasp” or because “the ground caused the fumble.”

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What ludicrous rules these are. A quarterback (for instance, Florida’s at the Sugar Bowl) takes a snap and dives across the line. He is five feet above the goal line. Only his hands are extended across it. He fumbles the ball in midair. But it is ruled a touchdown because he had the football while crossing the “invisible plane” of the end zone.

You would think the least a guy could do in scoring a touchdown is have the football when he lands in the end zone.

My pet peeve for my entire adult life continues to be this business of guessing where a kicked ball went out of bounds. Football is a game measured by millimeters, with chains. But a punter may aim a ball at the sideline, kick it into the cheerleaders, with no fear of penalty. Instead, some funny official comes loping along the sideline, looking up toward the blimp, to point his toe and say: “Here! It went out right here!”

Why shouldn’t a punt have to land in bounds? I say this over and over and over, into a vacuum. No one hears.

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All these stupid rules. You can try an onside kick. If it goes 10 yards and you recover it, it is your ball. Fine. But if you kick the thing nine yards, or if you kick it out of bounds--in other words, if you mess up--what happens? You get to do it over. The way New England just did against Cleveland. And you still only have to kick it 10 yards. You get a second chance to get it right.

Second chance. I bet Scott Norwood would have liked a second chance to kick a Super Bowl field goal for Buffalo.

Two guys go out for a pass. They veer all over the place. The receiver runs into the defender. The defender gets penalized for making contact. Where was he supposed to go--to the Gatorade jug? He can’t bump more than once. He can’t bump more than five yards upfield. He can’t wave his arms. He can’t touch a pass-catcher until the catcher’s fingers touch the ball. Insanity. What’s next--he can’t talk to him?

Football should be such a snap.

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Whichever guy has the football, gets the football. You either catch it or you don’t. You either fumble it or you don’t. You must have the football in the end zone for it to be a touchdown. There, it took me 15 seconds to explain football.

I want officials to call only three things:

1. Too many men on the field.

2. Illegal use of a handgun.

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3. Kicking the passer.

Otherwise, take that flag and stuff it in your pocket.


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