Tuesday, February 7th, 2012...10:42 pm

How Equity Could Have Changed the Super Bowl

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By: Joe Figueroa

 Lost in the dizzying final three minutes of Super Bowl XLVI was an oddity; a procedural quirk that was probably nothing, but could have had shocking consequences on the outcome of the New York Giants’ eventual 21-17 victory over the New England Patriots.  While discussed at length at parties across the country, Bill Barnwell of grantland.com put it succinctly:

With 17 seconds left, Tom Brady took a snap and desperately searched around for an open receiver. He eventually launched a pass to a well-covered Aaron Hernandez that fell incomplete, but not before eight seconds had passed and a flag had fallen to the ground. The penalty? The Giants had 12 men on the field, a five-yarder that would allow the Patriots to replay the down from their own 49-yard line, but not reclaim the time on the clock.

In a situation where a team needs a touchdown with 20 seconds or so left in the game, time can be far more important than yards. Trading eight seconds for five yards there is a decision the defense will take every time, and even if the Patriots had the ability to get off a free play, the Giants had 12 men on the field and were more likely to stop such a play from succeeding. It’s brilliant. It’s illegal. But was it on purpose?

Barnwell mentions how the tactic has been tacitly employed in the past, and how it is a tactically smart move—if you can get away with it.  The Giants were most likely caught up in the moment of the last two minutes of the Super Bowl, and had plenty of confused moments throughout the game to make one believe that this was a mix-up.  But the potential benefits are significant.

Barnwell also points out a quirk in the NFL rulebook that warns of potential consequences if you do not get away with it.  A little known (and never used) penalty exists in the rulebooks called “palpably unfair act.”  The explanation for the flag is expressed in NFL rule 12-3-3, and is potentially game-changing in breadth:

A player or substitute shall not interfere with play by any act which is palpably unfair.  Penalty: For a palpably unfair act: Offender may be disqualified. The Referee, after consulting his crew, enforces any such distance penalty as they consider equitable and irrespective of any other specified code penalty. The Referee could award a score. (Emphasis added by Author)

This rule uses the legal jargon of “equity” to basically declare that anything a team or player does that is so blatantly cheating as to make the play unfair is punishable by a penalty of any yardage, or the award of a touchdown.

That’s right, a touchdown on a penalty.

If the refs had somehow determined that the Giants put too many men on the field on purpose, for malicious purposes, they would have had the leeway to punish the Giants severely, and swing the game in the Patriots favor.

This isn’t the only rule in the NFL book that allows referees leeway in determining just penalties for infractions. Another penalty, “fouls to prevent score,” allows the referee to award a touchdown if the defensive team commits repeated penalties that prevent a touchdown from being scored naturally.

These rules, while almost never actually enforced, speak to a deeper truth at the heart of American sports.  Engrained in every sports fan’s appreciation for competition is a sense of integrity, and a need for impartial arbiters to enforce a fair fight.

These intrinsic feelings mirror the development of equity as an alternative to strictly legal remedies in the common law tradition.  Just as inflexible legal rules and the often unsatisfying monetary damages have lead courts to consider alternatives to the law model, events in sports sometimes suggest that the rules of the game do not always provide enough of an avenue to redress wrongs.

Flashback to 2010.  The World Cup is living up to its billing as one of the premiere sporting events on Earth.  The first World Cup to be held on African soil provided a particularly exciting Quarterfinal match between Uruguay and Ghana, who as the last African nation remaining in the Round of 8 took up the banner of the entire continent.

As the game remained tied at one at the very end of extra time, Ghana had a free kick and one last chance to avoid penalty kicks.  As the kick sailed towards goal, a scrum ensued, leading to one final glorious chance for Ghana: a blistering shot straight towards goal with the keeper caught out of place.  Uruguayan forward Luis Suárez, standing on the goal line, knew the only way to keep the ball from scoring was to deflect it with his hand.

A red card and penalty kick later, the Ghanans failed to convert on the penalty, and eventually lost in the tie-breaking shootout to the South Americans.  Say what you will about the play- Suárez was penalized to the fullest extent of the rulebook, Ghana has a golden opportunity to win and blew it, etc.  But something about the play did not sit well with many fans.  The illegal use of Suárez’s hand saved the game for Uruguay.  It just didn’t seem equitable.

(Consequently, many of the most infamous plays in the history of sport involving blatant unfairness have involved handballs in soccer.  Paging Sr. Maradona…)

It is true that the rules of sport help prevent serious injustice in the majority of cases.  Further, it is scary to think that a referee could make a split-second decision that changes the game on the basis of his own subjective sense of fairness, while a judge sitting in equity has time for reflection before making a decision.  But isn’t it nice to know that if an NFL team were to put 20 players on the field multiple times, that the refs can respond simply with the touchdown signal?

The same can be said for the landowner who just wants to keep and maintain his beloved property, and not just be paid damages by a wrongful trespasser.

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