The pro football season is drawing to a close and once again no little controversy has surrounded the NFL’s rules.
If I had to pick, I’d say the two biggest issues this past season have been (1) what defines a catch and (2) when has head-to-head “spearing” occurred?
Football is prone to superheated controversy over rules and significant rule changes year after year. Baseball, on the other hand, not so much.
The biggest MLB rule change I can think of in recent years was the one that allowed pitchers simply to announce they were giving a free pass to a batter – i.e., without having to pitch four straight balls to a waiting catcher standing outside the box. (Yawn.)
But why the difference between the NFL and MLB regarding rules?
Consider for a moment the problem of defining a “catch.”
In MLB, a catch is a pretty uncontroversial. It’s defined by securing the ball, in a glove or by hand, and subsequently controlling it.
The NFL’s catch rules are more elaborate. And they changed significantly before the current season began.
For one thing, there’s the matter of the football player’s feet. Unlike in baseball, a football catch cannot be completed in midair. In the NFL, both the player’s feet must touch the ground and touch inbounds. A baseball player can make catch anywhere he can get to – including in foul territory or even reaching over the barrier to rob a batter of a homerun.
No such luck in football.
But the feet requirement doesn’t stop at touching the ground inbounds. An NFL player must also complete two steps with the caught ball and make something called a “football move” – in other words, to show that he’s now a runner in secure possession of the ball. No such added requirement attends a baseball catch.
One of the reasons football’s extra requirements is that catches on the gridiron are often fiercely contested. A defensive team’s cornerback, safety, or linebacker may be shadowing the receiver like glue ready to fight for the ball like a terrier before, during, and after a would-be catch. So football’s rules must take cognizance of a defensive players right to try to dislodge the ball from the receiver’s grasp.
Nothing like that sort of conflict attends a baseball catch – at least not usually. Conflicts over a catch can occur in baseball, but usually these involve contacts between a fielder and a fan – that is, a fan in the stands bent on securing a souvenir of the game.
Perhaps last season’s most controversial incident of this kind happened in the 4th game of the American League Championship series, between the Astros and the Red Sox.
Astros’ designated hitter Jose Altuve hit what looked like a homerun over the right field wall. Red Sox fielder Mookie Betts leaped high, reached over the wall, and missed making the catch only just barely. The covering umpire, however, ruled Altuve out on grounds that a fan had interfered with Betts’s glove. His call was confirmed on instant replay.
There was no controversy over the rule, per se, of course, but opinions hotly differed on whether Altuve deserved a homerun.
Football’s catch rule is arguably still in a state of flux and still, all this past season, producing serious and prolonged discussion by commentators, fans, coaches, players, and, of course, referees.
In at least one way, incidentally, the NFL’s catch rule is actually more permissive than MLB’s rule. A football player can secure a catch by any part of his body – for example, even by catching the ball between his knees – so long as the possession is secure and survives his fall to the ground.
Not so, in baseball. A baseball player must catch the ball with his glove or with a bare hand. A ball caught with his cap, a catcher’s facemask, or any other part of the body is, by rule, not considered a catch.
It isn’t just the contested character of a catch that makes football’s rules so subject to controversy and change. Safety concerns (remember, spearing was the other big issue this season), keeping the game interesting for fans (e.g., the longer extra point kick now), and balancing the fairness between defense and offense also play a role in football’s colorful and rocky history of rule evolution and changes.
The interplay, in turn, makes football’s rules history a fascinating subject.
— Ron Roizen