Are National Football League referees, in addition to their duties policing a chaotic game of borderline violence, also supposed to serve as grade school hall monitors?
Must our beleaguered zebra-shirted linesmen, judges and umpires also be on the lookout for every kind of petty monkey business, as though the 80,000-seat stadium was a dirt patch playground packed with sneaky 8-year-olds? Do refs really need to keep an eye out so that nobody messes with the inflation level of the balls? Has it come to that?
In a perfect world, in a sport played and coached by perfect gentlemen adhering to the most rigorous standards of ethical behavior, such oversight would be unnecessary.
In a perfect world, the financial services industry could be depended on to follow the Golden Rule, and aggressively self-police should the need ever arise.
One of the few things that coaches, players and fans of nearly every competitive team sport seem to agree on these days is that there are too many rules, too many stoppages and disruptions due to infractions, too much intrusion by officials who we'd prefer to remain more or less invisible. How did that happen?
Let's just say it wasn't an accident. The rulebook for most major sports is as complex and attenuated as the U.S. Tax Code and the language used in the valiant attempt to clarify what's illegal is similarly tortured. This from the NCAA men's basketball rulebook, over 100 pages long: "Continuous motion applies to a try for field goal or free throw, but shall have no significance unless there is a foul by the defense during the interval that begins when the habitual throwing movement starts a try or with the touching on a tap and ends when the ball is clearly in flight."
The NFL rulebook, 108 pages, includes sections with eye-blurring identifiers like Rule 7, Section 2, Article 7.4, note 2(r). Clauses go to great pains to spell out, in case nobody knew it was wrong, a byzantine array of prohibitions, such as: "grabbing a helmet opening of an opponent and forcibly twisting, turning or pulling his head." One can almost imagine an "unless there is written consent from the opponent" amendment being someday attached.
As with the tax code and financial regulation, a strain of Tea Party-ish, less-government-is-best-government perspective creeps into the discussion. Digger Phelps, the former ESPN commentator and Notre Dame coach, once openly wondered if the sport wasn't better off in simpler times with fewer rules. "Shirts against skins worked pretty well," he said.
Ah, those were the days. But let's get real.
If we have a rampant escalation in the number of laws covering an ever wider range of conceivable concerns -- NFL rules state that the football must be inflated to a pressure measuring between 12.5-13.5 pounds peer square inch, and must be checked by officials two hours and 15 minutes before game time -- it's because hyper-competitive miscreants have become ever more inventive.
And what is the referee's role in all this? It is to do his best to ensure fairness (remember fairness?), even when both sides are deviously angling for an unfair edge.
Why is fairness, or the semblance of it, needed? Because absent a guarantee that maximum effort has been made to achieve fairness, our contest could easily be mistaken for just another form of entertainment, a mere diversion. And if fans of big time TV sports ever begin to faith that the games are ultimately on the level... whoa! Now that would take some air out of the old ball!
Which brings us back to the New England Patriots. Guilty? Innocent? I have no idea.
But there is a corrective to the inflation-deflation problem that should benefit all parties going forward. The overseers of the NFL should legislate the addition of one more official -- there are currently seven assigned -- whose sole responsibility will be to watch over those balls with the determination of a mama grizzly protecting her cub.
Alternatively, the league could revisit a simpler, albeit less profitable, model: shirts vs. skins.
Bob Katz is the author of four books. His latest, The Whistleblower: Rooting for the Ref in the High-Stakes World of College Basketball, will be published Feb. 3.