The Football Move: the greatest sports move of them all.

Sports are made up. There is nothing necessary about them other than the laws of physics (which cannot be changed, as we all know).  Everything else is the result of mutually agreed-upon social conventions that, over time, have become heavily codified institutions. This is especially true of professional sports.[1]

Like all institutions, sports have some elements that seem arbitrary. Baseball, for instance, has the infield fly rule. Hockey has its rules about scoring in the crease.  Normally however, we like to think of the rules for sports as both clear and fixed. Officials (the technocrats of the sporting world) have the straightforward task of interpreting and applying those rules correctly. It might be difficult – split second decision-making, limited perspective, the frailties of human nature and all that – but at the end of the day, either the official has done their job right or wrong.

That’s why I love the NFL’s rule regarding completed receptions: it completely undermines that model. The three requirements of a successful catch are:

1) secure control of the ball in arms or hand prior to any contact of ball to ground,

2) two feet inbounds (though actually any two non-adjacent body parts will due in a pinch), and

3) control maintained long enough after 1) and 2) are fulfilled to, as the rulebook has it, “perform an act common to the game.”

It’s that third clause that gets me. It is more commonly expressed as follows: in order for a catch to be completed, the receiver has to have possession long enough to make a “football move.”

A football move! What a genius concept.[2] It’s like whoever wrote the passage just gave up and said, “screw it. The refs’ll know it when they see it.”

David Tyree’s football move, immortalized.

I can’t think of another rule that so clearly draws attention to sport’s (and, by extension, any social institution’s) arbitrariness, the extent to which its legislation rests so completely – yet generally quite reliably – on someone’s interpretation of a necessarily incomplete concept.

To go all nerdy and theory-laden for a minute, this an explicit example of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblances. (US Justice Potter Stewart’s treatment of hard-core pornography is another famous example.)

Wittgenstein himself uses an illustration to explain the concept, rather than a concise definition, which I suppose is fitting. To paraphrase: try to create a list of the characteristics of the concept of “game” that is both necessary and sufficient to allow anyone to identify a game when they see one. Wittgenstein concludes that you can’t (and for what it’s worth I agree with him). Some games are competitive, some aren’t. Some involve teams, some don’t. The best you can do is group together a series of characteristics that together seem to go with most games, the same way a given family will share a number of characteristics in common, without any one person possessing all of them, or any one of them in particular.

I’ve always felt the family resemblances concept could help resolve a lot of pointless debates. (Then again, I am probably underestimating people’s enjoyment of pointless debates.) Some concepts are just not definable, try as hard as we might. They grow and change as purposes and contexts evolve.  Our rules are more useful when they can grow and change as well. This is true in sports; it’s also true in society.[3]

So the next time your team loses when a referee applies a strict interpretation of a overly constrictive rule, think of Wittgenstein.[4] It probably won’t help, though.

Tyree catch painting photo credit: Gtol via photopin cc
Football photo credit: Elvert Barnes via photopin cc


[1] One of the themes of this blog is to highlight the hidden forms of politics present where none appear to be at work. At least I hope that’s one of the themes. So far, admittedly, most of the articles have been riffs on the US election. That’s cool too, I guess.

[2] I wish more endeavours had a term like this. Imagine watching next presidential debate, and afterwards hearing Piers Morgan gush, “that was just a great debate move by President Obama there.” Or taking your drivers exam, and being asked to “do a driving move up at the next left .” Both statements are totally obscure as they appear here, but in both cases you almost certainly would know exactly what the speaker meant, given the context.

[3] See “United States Constitution, the.”

[4] Make sure you’re thinking of kindly Old Wittgenstein. By all accounts, Young Wittgenstein was kind of a jerk.

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