Friday, January 16, 2015

Let's Deregulate The NFL

The NFL is riding high as America’s Game, but it has a problem.
Most criticism of the NFL has been aimed at player safety, concussions in particular, and player behavior off the field, highlighted by some high profile domestic abuse cases.  Both are issues that require attention, but neither issue impacts the experience of watching an NFL game.
The real problem facing the NFL and its ability to keep its stadiums full and TV ratings strong, is the rulebook.  For a game built around watching enormous human beings pushing themselves to their physical limits of strength, agility and aggressiveness, it’s too often the old men in pinstripes with the most influence over the result of a game.  Ticky-tack penalties and obscure rule infractions often overshadow the incredible athleticism of the players on the field.
NFL viewers tune in to see Dez Bryant make acrobatic catches at the goal line with a trip to the conference finals hanging in the balance.  We tune in to watch JJ Watt burst through offensive lines for a huge sack on a key third down.  We tune in to watch Richard Sherman scratch and claw to keep the ball out of Calvin Johnson’s hands.
Unfortunately, the first question we ask after these plays is “was there a flag?”  And far too often, the answer is yes, erasing that play from history.
When these penalties occur, it kills the flow of the game, negates the skill and athleticism of the players and fills the aggrieved team and its fans with rage, and rightfully so.   Andrew Sharp does an excellent job dissecting this outrage on using the Dez Bryant catch (or non-catch as the case may be) as an example. 
After Bryant’s acrobatic catch, the opposing coach challenges the call and we’re forced to sit through 538 replays in a feeble attempt to apply nonsensical rules to a bang-bang play on a frame-by-frame basis.  Then the referee comes back and negates the play using rules devoid of logic.  That huge sack is overturned because Watt, after getting pushed, shoved and otherwise harassed by a 300-lbs lineman, happens to graze the QB’s helmet with his pinky, drawing a 15-yard personal foul penalty.  Sherman’s incredible coverage of Johnson draws a penalty because Matthew Stafford horrendously under-throws a pass, making it look like Sherman stops Johnson from coming back to the ball, drawing a 40-yard pass interference penalty. 
In a well played and officiated game, you don’t even notice the referees.  Can you remember watching an NFL game where you didn’t notice the referees?  We can’t.  Between the booth reviews, the incessant defensive holding and illegal contact penalties, the over-calling of pass interference and the over protection of quarterback and wide receivers, the referees control an ever growing proportion of the game.  The average Dad in the stands didn’t pay $500 to take his kid to watch referees throw yellow hankies all over the place or sit through long reviews, and the 7 year old watching at home and wondering why his team scored a touchdown, but isn’t allowed to keep the points, might give up and just go back to his Clash of Clans village. 
So what should the NFL do about it?
Our thoughts:
1.       Instant replay should be limited to 40 seconds and run out of NFL headquarters (like baseball and hockey).  If coaches and quarterbacks have to make decisions within the confines of a 40 second play clock, so should the referees.  If the seasoned referees in the replay booth can’t overturn the play based on a couple of replays, the call on the field stands.  The purpose of replay is not to dissect each play on a frame-by-frame basis, it’s to ensure that egregious mistakes are remedied.  40 seconds is plenty of time to determine if an obvious mistake has been made.
2.       A catch equals control and two feet (or one elbow, knee, rear end) in bounds.  That’s it.  The entire rule about controlling through the process is thrown out.  The idea that if the ball touches the ground at any point during the catch it’s not a catch is also thrown out.  If a player has control of the ball, and is in bounds, it’s a catch.  That’s it. All fumble rules apply after that point.
3.       The pass interference rules need to be radically overhauled.  First, pass interference should only be a spot foul if it’s egregious enough to be considered unsportsmanlike conduct.  If the defender is beat and their only chance to prevent a touchdown is to tackle the receiver before the ball arrives, that’s unsportsmanlike conduct and a spot foul.  If the foul is just a bit of sloppy defending or poor timing, it’s a 15 yard penalty and an automatic first down.  This works in college, no reason it can’t work in the NFL.  Lastly, pass interference cannot be called on an underthrown ball.  The controversial non-call against the Dallas Cowboys in the wild card round is a perfect example of this rule.  Under this proposal, the non-call would have been correct and uncontroversial because the ball was badly underthrown, forcing the tight end to try and stop his forward motion and reach back downfield to try and catch the ball.  A quarterback’s bad throw shouldn’t be rewarded with a pass interference call.

4.       We’re all for player safety, but the ticky-tack personal foul calls need to stop, particularly on plays involving quarterbacks and wide receivers.  I don’t think this requires a rule change, but the commissioner should issue an Obama-like executive order instructing the referees to only enforce in obviously dangerous and intentional hits, not every glance of the helmet.  As an offset, players are no longer just fined for dangerous hits, they should also be suspended more liberally - even if its just for a quarter, a half or multiple games.  A player is much more sensitive to missing game time as he is to missing Benjamin's.  The NHL model would work well here - i.e. player can appeal, and all decisions are announced promptly and publically with a full explanation.   
5.       Coaches should be able to challenge an announced personal foul penalty (i.e. you cannot challenge anything that was not called) or for/against the unsportsmanlike conduct version of pass interference on any pass play (i.e. you can either challenge the penalty, or challenge the non-call).  These are currently the only two game changing plays that are not reviewable, but they should be.
6.       Illegal shift, illegal formation, illegal motion, ineligible man down field, and ineligible receivers – all of these random rules are revoked – except illegal forward motion – that can stay in the CFL and Arena league.  Who cares how many players are lined up on the line of scrimmage?  Who cares if the left tackle catches a pass?  Who cares if two players are in motion during the snap?  What’s the harm in the center sprinting down the field before a pass is thrown?
These changes put the game back in the hands of the players and coaches, exactly where it belongs.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

It's Not Cowardly to Protect Employees

We need to stop calling the leaders of media outlets who decide not to republish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons "cowards.”

Any reasonable person knows that free speech is a right to be celebrated and defended. Unfortunately, we live in a world filled with unreasonable people, who do unreasonable things for unreasonable reasons.  Wednesday’s demented exercise of religious vigilantism in Paris is an example of such an action. 

For those that beat their chest from the comfort of their twitter account and call a media outlet cowardly for deciding not to publish a cartoon, I urge you to put yourself in their shoes.  If you’re in charge of a newsroom full of tens, if not hundreds of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters, is the publication of a certain cartoon worth endangering the well-being of even a single employee or the viability of a business that employs tens, hundreds or thousands of people?   

This is not a crisis of free speech.  This is a question of making choices that are best for specific organizations and their employees.  In fact, deciding not to publish the cartoons is an equally reasonable exercise in free speech as is the decision to publish the cartoons.     

Is it horrible and tragic that an editor needs to worry about religious fanatics storming his newsroom and executing his staff over a published cartoon?  Absolutely.  But if your mother, father, son or daughter were in that newsroom, what would you want that editor to do? 

For us, it’s a no-brainer.  We cover the story in depth but let our readers find the cartoon elsewhere if they so choose – something that anyone with a remote control or an internet connection and the ability to spell Google and Charlie Hebdo can accomplish in about 5 seconds.  Would we feel good about our decision?  No, but would we feel worse if a single employee was injured in part because of our decision to publish the cartoon?  Yes.   

For clarity, this is how we would exercise or right to free speech in this situation, it does not mean we think reprinting the cartoon is wrong.  Publishing the cartoons is an equally reasonable exercise free speech.  To suggest that either decision is right/wrong or courageous/cowardly is the real attack on free speech.    

We find criticizing free speech on the grounds that it’s not the right kind of free speech problematic, and the reactions to those who decide not to reprint Charlie Hebdo cartoons are just the latest example in this growing and disturbing phenomenon.

Monday, January 5, 2015

It's Hall of Fame Time Again

Last year we shamed Jayson Stark of ESPN for admitting that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are two of the greatest players of all time, but leaving them off his 2014 Hall of Fame ballot.  He cited the broken voting system with many critiques that we share, but our point was that if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.

So this year, it's only fair that we commend Stark for his full throated support for the games best players, full stop.  We only hope that more members of the BBWAA take the same approach and start to clear out the backlog of historically great players that, to date, have not been enshrined into the games Hall of Fame. 

With that, we present our 2015 ballot and predictions.  Remember, due to the asinine rules imposed by the Hall of Fame (which Stark does a great job criticizing), a ballot can only have 10 players, regardless of how many are worthy of induction.   

  1. Barry Bonds
  2. Roger Clemens
  3. Randy Johnson*
  4. Pedro Martinez*
  5. John Smoltz* 
  6. Jeff Bagwell
  7. Mike Piazza 
  8. Curt Schilling
  9. Mark McGwire
  10. Craig Biggio*
* Who we think will get inducted - Smoltz and Biggio will be very close to 75%, but we think/hope they both get there. 

Our ballot has changed from last year - we gain three spots given the induction of Maddux, Glavine and Thomas, which are taken by first timers Big Unit, Pedro and Smoltz.  Our only other change was selecting Biggio instead of Sammy Sosa.  This change is partly due to our realization that we were under-appreciating the breadth of Biggio accomplishments and partly due to finally taking off our Cubbie Blue tinted glasses and realizing that Sosa's role in bringing the game back from it's devastating strike year was important, but not a reason for Hall induction under the current rules.  It's also clear that a vote for Sosa would be wasted as he only received 7% last year and is likely to fall below the 5% threshold in 2015, forever removing him from the ballot.