With 45 seconds remaining in December’s Miami Beach Bowl, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall burned two consecutive timeouts in an attempt to ice the Memphis kicker on a point after kick to tie the game.  The double-icing failed and Memphis went on to win in overtime.  Though this isn’t always the case.

Sports enthusiasts seem consistently split regarding the ethical evaluation of icing the kicker,1 the one side suggesting the strategy is just part of the game and the other deeming it an unsportsmanlike way to treat one’s opponent.  As usual, the burden of proof lies with those looking to condemn the action.

In my recent discussions with others on this topic, an analogy arose:

At the final hole of a golf tournament, a golfer lines up to make a game-winning putt.  His competitor walks onto the green and tells him he’ll have to wait for 90 seconds.  When asked why, he shares that he wants him to take a moment to think about the putt, the hope being that over-thinking such a fine-tuned, flow-based skill will cause him to choke and subsequently fail.  This sort of behavior would clearly be considered unsportsmanlike: getting into a player’s head, forcing him to break his rhythm thus becoming cold—iced—does not treat one’s opponent with the respect inherent in a fair competition.

But the analogy disregards an important difference between football and golf: football teams are legally awarded a specified number of instances in which they may cease play by way of timeouts.  This clearly doesn’t exist in golf.

This forces the question: If the rules permit an action, does that deem it ethically allowable?

Early in my coaching career, I utilized a tactic aimed solely to get in the head of opposing shooters.  As the shooter lined up to take a penalty shot, I would yell to my goalie, but for the sole benefit of affecting the shooter’s psyche, “He’s gripping the ball!”  This conferred no real information to the goalie, but countless shooters later reported they became so befuddled and consciously aware of their hand on the ball it caused them to overthink the shot and, quite often, to miss the goal entirely.  I no longer do this as it seems to me clearly unsportsmanlike despite not violating any rule.

Such mental ploys are a lot like asking a tennis player, immediately before attempting an important serve, if he inhales or exhales when he serves.  Doing this with the intent to fluster a competitor is ethically dubious, and certainly not sportsmanlike.

To make our football matter more interesting, two versions of kicker-icing exist.  The first, which we’ve discussed thus far, in which the opposing coach calls a timeout once he recognizes the other team will attempt a field goal.  But the second version became popular in 2006 when the timeout-rule changed, allowing coaches to call timeouts instead of just the players.  In a Week Two game of the 2007 season, Denver coach Mike Shanahan stood next to the sideline official and called “timeout” immediately prior to the snap of a late field goal attempt by Raiders’ Sebastian Janikowski.  Not having time to realize a timeout was called, the Raiders ran the play and Janikowski made what would have been the game-winning field goal.  Forced to cease celebrating and kick again, following the timeout, Janikoswki’s kick ricocheted off an upright and Denver went on to win.  The following week, Raiders’ coach Lane Kiffin utilized the exact same ploy in a game they too ended up winning.  And then two weeks later, Bills coach Dick Jauron jumped on the “everybody does it” bandwagon.

The head of NFL officiating at the time, Mike Pereira, commented on coaches using timeouts in this last-second icing manner, “I don’t think any of us projected it would be used this way.  It just doesn’t seem right [italics mine].”  And NFL Rules Commission member John Mara added, “We have other sportsmanship issues we have had to deal with—taunting, excessive celebrations—and this just adds a whole other level to it.”  This is exactly the question, to use the words of the experts: is it a sportsmanship issue and is it right?

Interestingly, Mara included icing along with other practices which were, at the time, not against the rules yet clearly unsportsmanlike.  Taunting and excessive celebration were once permitted.  Now they aren’t.  Most agree that taunting a competitor is unsportsmanlike and unethical: You can’t behave ethically while simultaneously mocking someone, even if no rules exist to permit it.

The “last-second timeout” violates many other precedents concerning the ethics of sport.  The mere fact that it results in a kicker having to perform the same task twice seems argument enough.  This form of timeout also allows the coach to participate in the game more as a player: he actively inserts himself into the play in a way that supersedes his intended involvement.  Additionally in this case, the coach doesn’t perform a particular play or skill in football but, instead, performs football’s equivalent of asking a tennis player if he inhales while serving, and then forces him to re-hit a successful serve he’s already made.

Were the league interested in preventing this, they could include it as a form of emotional “taunting.”  The only intent, in these situations, is to fluster the athlete mentally thus negatively affecting his performance.  As I write this, I realize my own earlier example as a coach “icing” the shooter was actually a form of taunting, just disguised very well.

Much of this evaluation hinges on the relationship of moral judgments and rules in sport.  Is a particular action first considered unethical and only then outlawed by the rules (i.e. taunting)?  Or is the action against the rules and only then, by definition, unethical (i.e. soccer’s hand ball)?  The answer is a blend of the two.  To pick an obvious example, striking someone in the face with a fist in a soccer game is not unethical simply because it’s prohibited by the rules, it’s unethical regardless of the rules.  Likewise taunting: mocking someone was unethical behavior in football before the league enacted a rule prohibiting it.  In these cases, the moral evaluation comes first, then the rule reflects the evaluation.

But these two sorts of examples are true outside the context of sport: you don’t harm others—physically or emotionally.2 The timeout issue is sport-specific: the rules of the particular sport determine what participants may and may not do.  Intentionally hitting a ball with one’s hand in a soccer match is unethical only because of a rule prohibiting it.  Without soccer’s rules, it’s just a bunch of people on a grassy field with a ball and a couple of rectangular objects.

This is, in part, what’s going on here as officials come to view this as a “sportsmanship issue.”  “Freezing the Kicker” is already listed as a violation in the NFL Rulebook under Section 3: “Unsportsmanlike Conduct.”  Though, currently, the violation occurs only when a team calls a second consecutive timeout to freeze the kicker: this, the league considers “unsportsmanlike.”

It would be easy to prevent this type of timeout the first time around as well. For example, enact a rule like, “Following the two-minute warning, no timeouts allowed with fewer than 5 seconds on the play clock,” or, “No timeout by the opposing coach 30 seconds prior to a team’s kicking a field goal in the final two minutes.”

In the absence of harming an opponent, the rules determine the ethics of a game. Thus, regarding our timeout example here, the rules of the game are all we have to instruct us as to how we ought to act within such an institution. So, until the league changes the rule, coaches are free to use their timeouts as they please, even if they choose to do so ineffectively.  Though I’ll be hoping the rule makers outlaw the last-second version of kicker icing, mostly because it just doesn’t seem “right” nor “sportsmanlike,” to quote the rule makers back to themselves.

1It has become common practice for a football coach to call a timeout near the end of a close game immediately prior to the opposing team attempting a field goal.  The intent being for the kicker to ruminate an extra 90 seconds, building the anxiety of the situation, causing him to tighten up and miss the kick.

2In sport, participants may allowably harm others in cases in which the harm is done in an agreed upon manner.  The boxer tacitly consents to being punched by his competitor by voluntarily entering the boxing ring. Though he doesn’t consent to other types of harm like being bitten, etc.