The rules of football and the rule of law: Morning after musings from a disgruntled legal observer

It's the morning after the biggest sports day of the year for this football fan, and I'm feeling a bit exasperated. Of course, the Super Bowl was Sunday night. But, as devoted readers of this column know, I'm also a big English "football" fan and my team, Liverpool Football Club, had one of its biggest games of the year, as well. The soccer game was in the morning (local U.S. time), followed shortly thereafter by the pre-game Super Bowl festivities. I had just enough time in between to run to the store and stock up on more beer and cheese curds for my small viewing party.

As it turned out, both games were thrilling. But both were decided, in large part, by controversial, subjective calls by the games' final arbiters (the referees), rather than the players on the field. As a lawyer, that irked me.

The morning affair pitted Liverpool against Tottenham Hotspur, one of their London rivals, in the premier game of the Premier League weekend. Both teams are currently jostling for position near the top of the standings as they head into the crucial final third of the season. Neither could afford a loss, and tensions were running high ahead of the match. The night game featured the Philadelphia Eagles against the New England Patriots in the sport's pinnacle contest. Most neutral fans were pulling for the underdog Eagles, but the majority of them, including myself, had little belief that they could actually topple the mighty Patriots and their 40-year young quarterback, Tom Brady. For the last decade, the Patriots have been the most dominant franchise in all of sports, making five Super Bowl appearances since 2007. Going into this game, the Eagles had never lifted the coveted Lombardi Trophy.

To most neutral observers, both games lived up to their billing. The soccer game was an intense, high energy contest, ending in a 2-2 tie, with three of the goals coming in spectacular fashion in the last 15 minutes. The Super Bowl, for its part, was an atypically high-scoring, free flowing game. Often, Super Bowls become nervy, disjointed affairs, in part because of the unusually long breaks in action for the (much anticipated) commercials and half-time show. But this game bucked that trend, featuring non-stop action and scoring, finally culminating in David vanquishing Goliath, 41-33.

What's there to complain about, then? Well, both games also featured questionable decisions by the games' judge and jury - the referees - and exposed blatant ambiguities in major rules, which ended up playing decisive roles in each contest.

First, in the last few minutes of the Liverpool match, Tottenham was awarded two questionable penalty kicks, the second of which ended up tying the game as the final seconds ticked away. The linesman, who was positioned on the touchline far from the alleged infraction, called a penalty when a Liverpool player appeared to trip the attacking forward near the goal. The replay, however, revealed that the Tottenham player looked to be in the act of diving (i.e., imitating a fall) when he made contact with the defender. Perhaps for that reason, the referee closest to the play didn't initially call a penalty. In the end, though, the head referee deferred to the linesman's call, and a penalty was awarded. The commentators - both on the television broadcast and those following online - vehemently disagreed with each other about the decision. No one, including the referees, seemed to have any idea how the rule should be applied under the circumstances.

The second game of my football doubleheader featured similarly controversial judicial decision-making. In the final minutes, Zach Ertz, Philly's tight end, caught a pass near the end zone, took a few steps, and dove in for the score to give the Eagles the lead. When he hit the turf, the ball became slightly dislodged before he fully wrangled it in. Was it a catch, a fumble, or an incomplete pass? Again, the commentators fervently disagreed with each other on what the rule was, let alone how it should be applied in this instance. Former officials immediately began arguing on Twitter, and rival fans were making their cases on Facebook in real time. The referees seemed unsure about what to do. In the end, it was ruled a touchdown, but the decision will surely be debated all off-season. There have already been vocal calls this morning to totally re-write the rule.

In both cases, the losing team's fans will leave the game feeling cheated, and I don't blame them. Neither league has been clear about how these rules should be applied and, clearly, the referees were ill-prepared to handle decisions on the margins. Both rules have been applied inconsistently all season. For any system of law - be it the U.S. legal system or the rules of football - that's a recipe for disaster.

A fundamental principle of our legal judicial system is one of stare decisis and precedent; once a rule is established, it should be applied the same way to similar controversies in the future. That concept promotes consistency, predictability and fairness ("all are treated equally in the eyes of the law"). Legal rules should also be clear, such that they are not subject to different interpretations and applications depending on the whims of the decision-maker. And, in cases where the decision-maker does get it wrong, the parties have a right to appeal. Here, both teams and sets of fans will feel like they were victims of unclear, ambiguous rules. And neither will have the right to an appeal. As a lawyer, that just doesn't seem fair.


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Published: Fri, Feb 09, 2018