Sunday’s Super Bowl was a great one. The game was well-played, close and exciting. Both Mahomes and Hurts were excellent. There were very few mistakes by either team, though Hurts did have a costly fumble in the first half and the Eagles special teams gave up an equally costly return late in the second half. Even the half time show was visually impressive.
But as great as the game was, one of the talking points after the game was the late game defensive holding call. This made what might have been a very exciting and tense ending to the game anticlimactic as it allowed KC to run the clock down to just a few seconds before kicking their game winning field goal. It seems like nearly every non-KC fan thinks that penalty shouldn’t have been called. As a philosopher of sport, this got me thinking. What do we actually mean by that claim? It seems like there are three possible meanings.
- The call was incorrect: it was not a penalty and thus shouldn’t have been called.
- Technically, it was a correct call, but it shouldn’t have been called.
- Technically, it was a correct call, but that kind of play just shouldn’t be a penalty.
So (1) seems belied by the Eagles cornerback James Bradberry’s admission that he did in fact hold Kansas City’s receiver Juju Smith-Schuster on the play. And replay does show contact by Bradberry. But was that contact, even the grabbing of the jersey in the way Bradberry appears to, enough for it to be a penalty?
There are two different versions of (2). The first is that given the moment of the game, so near to the end of the game and that it’s the biggest game of the year, the officials should just let things go unless they are egregious fouls. This is the “let the players play view.”
The second is that officials seemed not to be too eager to call many penalties in the game. There was a total of nine penalties enforced on Sunday. The average, according to my googling, is closer to 12-14 per game. And so, it felt like suddenly the officials decided to get tight after being loose. This is the “Just be consistent view.”
In both of these views, there is recognition of the penalty, but a frustration that the game gets more or less decided by the officials rather than by the teams. Of course, that’s not literally true. Many things could have happened in the remaining minutes (the Eagles D manages to force a fumble, the KC kicker misses the field goal, the Eagles get a big kick off return and are able to score in the final seconds). But it certainly felt like the game was over once that holding call was made. Partly these views are just expressing dissatisfaction at that outcome. But going beyond that, these views imply a theory of officiating that has officials using their discretion to determine whether to make a call or not. That is, not whether it is a foul or not, but whether the foul should be called or let go. I worry about a such a view. The game is fairer when officials are not deciding whether to enforce a rule or not. There is always, necessarily, discretion by the officials in determining if a foul occurred, but once they determine that it is a foul, they should call it regardless of game scenarios or moments.
Lastly, (3) is the view that the rules need be to be changed. Yes, this was a penalty, and so the officials did nothing wrong in calling it. Nevertheless, the rule is not a good rule and the game would be better overall without restrictive defensive holding. Restrictive defensive holding rules make the passing game easier. Such rules are part of the trend in the last 10-15 years (if not more) to give more and more advantages to the offensive side of the game. This has created an imbalance in the game, which might be good for ratings, but not for the game. The integrity of the game is better preserved by a balanced set of rules that do not overly favor the offense or the defense.
Personally, I’m more in the (3) camp. I’d like to see more balance in the NFL rules. I think the game would be more balanced, the defense and offense more equally challenged, if the defensive players were able, using some physical contact, to redirect and slow down receivers on their routes.