At first blush, one likely would respond instantly, “Of course it is unethical to do what you’ve described in a sporting contest. How is this even questionable?”

Let’s look at the sport of football, and let’s assume this situation:

Team A is trailing Team B by one point. There is one second left in the game. Team A is on Team B’s two-yard line. The ball is on the far right hash-mark, thus making the angle significantly more difficult for the field goal attempt that Team A has lined up to attempt than if the ball were snapped in the middle of the field.

Should Team A intentionally fail to snap the ball in time, and thus incur a five-yard delay of game penalty in order to provide a wider angle for its kicker? Or perhaps instruct one of its linemen to move prior to the snap? After all, the challenge likely is not whether your kicker has enough power to make a 24 yard field goal as opposed to a 19 yard field goal (at least let’s make that assumption for the purpose of this discussion). The challenge is whether your kicker can pull the ball sufficiently to split the uprights from a tough angle (I am assuming a right-footed kicker, with the ball placed on the far right hash-mark).

So what do you do as the head coach? ISLE philosopher/author Jack Bowen is not available for consultation on your sidelines. Do you break a rule in order to gain an advantage?

If you have watched NFL and college football games over the years, you probably have seen a team take a five-yard delay of game penalty in order to improve the angle for a very short field goal effort, or to back its punter up five yards in order to give more space to hang the ball up or hit an out of bounds target inside the opposing team’s 20 yard line.  I have never heard anyone question the ethics of that action.

The scenario described above left the realm of the hypothetical and became a real possibility for me this past weekend as the school for which I now work, Archbishop Riordan, came down to the wire against Menlo-Atherton in a wonderful high school football game. Big plays and boundless energy and enthusiasm made for a great event contested by young men and coaches who demonstrated excellent sportsmanship throughout. Sure, there was the occasional mistake, but it’s high school football!

In any event, Archbishop Riordan was Team A in the example above. Our coach did not decide to incur an intentional penalty to improve the angle of the field goal, so my middle-of-the-night ethical musings were not based on an actual outcome. Quite frankly, prior to my involvement with ISLE, I probably never would have thought there was any ethical issue involved here. And, to be honest, at the time of the event I did not think in terms of any ethical issues. I was curious to see if we would take the penalty, but had no problem when I saw we would not be backing our kicker up five yards. After all, I don’t see the kids in practice every day to know how our players might handles these situations, there were swirling winds blowing against us, and picking up seven yards following a bad snap or botched hold is a lot tougher than scrambling for two yards and the winning touchdown. That all went through my mind. What did not go through my mind is whether taking the five-yard penalty would be unethical. That came later.

So what do you think? Am I the only one who has seen this strategy employed forever in football and until now has not once thought about whether it is indeed ethical to intentionally incur a penalty in order to gain a superior field position?

Have we all become so used to seeing this strategy that it has become part of the fabric of football, accepted by both teams and the officials? After all, there is no intent to deceive. Both teams understand the consequences of the action, and both teams have the same opportunity to use the rules to their advantage.

Am I seeing an ethical issue where none exists?

Should we simply allow the team on defense the opportunity to negate the five-yard penalty in these situations?

I welcome your thoughts.

Jack Bowen, help me out here!

9 Comments » for Is It Unethical to Intentionally Violate a Rule in Order To Gain An Advantage in a Sporting Contest?  Not so Fast, My Friend!
  1. Jack Bowen says:

    Thanks for the shout-out(s), Mike. As a newly-appointed Athletic Director, you’ve stumbled upon a foundational issue in the world of sport philosophy. (Still happens to me as a coach and I’ve been at it for 15 years: see tomorrow’s post as an example.)

    A pioneer in the field of Sport Ethics, Warren Fraleigh wrote an article in 1982 entitled “Why The Good Foul Is Not Good” which specifically condemns the “good fouls” often made at the end of basketball games, though applies to all actions in sport in which one intentionally breaks a rule knowing they’ll get the requisite punishment for strategic reasons.

    Fraleigh defends a position known as “formalism.” Briefly stated: Because the rules define the game, any intentional rule violation results in that person actually not playing the game. (And if one isn’t playing a game they can’t win that game.) Elsewhere he frames this, writing that in agreeing to play badminton, the contestants don’t say “such a silly thing as: ‘Shall we follow the rules of badminton?’” Attempting to follow the rules is necessary to play the game.

    I was drawn to this approach until very recently. Here’s my take on this theory by way of looking at your example. Sport is, by definition, a socially constructed set of self-contained objectives and obstacles. A visitor new to a soccer- or golf-playing culture, for example, must wonder why the players expend so much effort kicking a ball into the rectangle or hitting a ball into the cup with such awkward sticks, when they could just grab it and throw it in there! The objectives are arbitrarily set along with similarly arbitrary rules of how to achieve said objective.

    In just this past weekend’s New York Times Magazine “The Ethicist” column, Klosterman summarizes this position in a response to a question about how we should evaluate certain participants who play the game show “The Price Is Right” by cleverly bidding $1 more than a previous contestant. He writes, “In any constructed game, the ethics and the rules are essentially interchangeable.” And all games are constructed.

    Because of this, the way we interact with a game’s rules are also socially constructed. In basketball, for example, it’s accepted within the culture of basketball that you can rightly break the rules near the end of the game by intentionally fouling knowing you’ll receive the requisite punishment. If the community of basketball aficionados wanted to curb this, they could/would make the penalty stronger.

    This actually happens a lot. In the sport that I coach (water polo) it used to be the case that putting an extra player in the game when the other team had the ball resulted in a penalty shot for that team. At the very end of a game, being down by a goal, this could be a good strategy: players make about 80% of penalty shots so there’s a 20% chance of getting the ball back. Rule-makers have since changed the game, now awarding the opposing team a penalty shot and also then getting the ball back. So, the water polo culture has voted: that’s no longer a viable strategy.

    So, in your football case, the 5-yard cost of the “delay of game” is not just strategically viable. In addition, as per your question, given that it is a common practice and that no one is harmed, it seems ethically acceptable.

    To reference a previous blog of mine, condemning a football team for doing this would be similar to a passer-by poking his head over the fence of a front yard wiffle ball game and admonishing the particular family for throwing the ball at runners because of ethical concerns. The family of wiffle ball players might rightly respond, “Who are you to judge the ethics of our made-up game?” They might then add, playfully of course, “These are the rules that we made up. We also allow 5 balls and only 2 strikes per at-bat.”

    Look, then, at the larger-scale baseball culture and the strategy of intentionally walking a batter. The rule is: the fourth called “ball” during an at-bat yields the (seemingly undesirable) result of the batter going to first base. While it’s not “against the rules” per se, it’s a lot like your football example: an expired play clock yields the (seemingly undesirable) result of the ball moving back five yards. There are cases in which a team would gladly accept these rulings. And if not desired by the particular sport’s culture then rule-makers would change the rules. There has actually been discussion in baseball circles of making the “penalty” for an intentional walk two bases, in order to deter this practice. Clearly, the rule-makers of football could do the same.

    (As an aside, I’m aware this approach closely resembles “cultural relativism” which, in the non-sporting realm, allows for moral atrocities in the case that a particular culture allows it (i.e. slavery). I argue there’s a difference here for the reasons stated above: the artificial nature of sport, the lack of harm done in the case of certain rule breaking, & the difference in the objectives and obstacles of sport compared to those “of society.”)

  2. mike gilleran says:

    Jack, thanks as always for a thoughtful and provocative perspective. Much appreciated! Mike

  3. Jack and Mike,

    I’m getting more and more into this stuff. Random thoughts elicited:

    – I’ve had the chance to sneak peeks at opposing playbooks left on benches and resisted the temptation. Actually quite a no-brainer, as I knew the victory would be hollow.

    – Not that I know much water polo, but, converse to the “good” basketball fouls (which mar the end of almost any close game), it seems water polo rules are almost built to encourage fouling the hole man.

    – In my daughter’s co-rec softball league, they do award two bases for walking a male who precedes a female in the batting order (to prevent “pitching around” the supposedly stronger make batter).

    Sports philosophy is a lot more fun than I ever expected. Keep ‘em coming!

    • Jack Bowen says:


      You’re exactly right about water polo and the unique nature of foul there. Actually, when I explained this to Warren Fraleigh (referenced in my response to Mike’s post, above) he was quite interested in it, as though it might be an outlier, or maybe an opportunity to delve deeper into the issue. Basically, water polo fouls are often good for the defense and the offense. A foul basically renders the ball-handler incapable of scoring, which is great for the defense as you can imagine. But it also allows the ball-handler the opportunity to make a pass undefended, a “free pass” so to speak. Without fouls in many instances, the game would have trouble being played.

      And what a great tidbit to have about the youth league that awards 2 bases for an intentional walk. Though it seems they should make that the rule for everyone: there’s an odd message implied in which you provide different rewards for players depending on biological factors. Why not just have that as the rule for everyone. And, actually, there’s a girl on a good friend’s Little League team (Go, Green Hornets!) who’s easily one of their best players (made the All Star team)…intentionally walking her, by this approach, should yield a triple. A well-intentioned rule but maybe a better way to put it into practice?

      Thanks for sharing!

    • mike gilleran says:


      Glad to hear about the rule in your daughter’s softball league. Makes sense. Years ago I played on a co-ed soccer team, and at least five of the 10 non-goalie players had to be women. In addition, a male could score only on his first touch off a pass from a woman, while a woman had no such restrictions. As you can imagine, skilled females soon became highly sought after and what had been a male-dominated league the year before changed significantly. Good luck to your daughter!


  4. Coach M says:

    I have been coaching high school football for 30 seasons, and am now coaching college football. I would not view the taking the penalty to better your angle of a kick as an ethical question. Especially in high school, as you stated, you are giving yourself as many dis-advantages as advantages, such as the bad snap, now you have to navigate 5 extra yards for the touchdown or first down. With a young kicker you also take the risk of icing the kicker yourself, and giving him more time to think about the kick, putting him at a disadvantage.
    The mental aspect of your players also comes into play. Do all your players understand the strategy you are using, or is this going to put them in a mental state, thinking you made a mistake and gave yourseelf and your team a disadvantage, because now your lineman and other players feel more added pressure.
    If this is considered an ethical question, then I would say you would have to say, spiking the ball to stop the clock, and throwing the ball away out of bounds to avoid a sack, or stepping out of the end zone, when punting from your end zone, taking a safety, to avoid a mistake and giving up an easy touchdown or blocked punt, would also have to be considered unethical. In this context, I wouldn’t consider any of these to be unethical, I believe it is just good football, understanding the rules, and using them to your advantage, and I am sure in most cases, the opponent, given the same situation would do the same things as well.

  5. mike gilleran says:

    Coach M,

    Thanks for your comments. Your perspective as a coach really helps fill out the picture. By the way, I have spoken with a few coaches and they share your views. In particular, the practice of taking a safety as opposed to risking a punt from deep in your end zone was noted as a long-accepted decision in football.

    Good luck with your team!


  6. In soccer there is a rule that gives the referee lee-way in not penalizing an infraction if that would be to the (in his eyes unfair) advantage of the other team. The solution is not perfect as it substitutes hard and fast rules for subjective discretion but seems to be well accepted in the sport.

  7. Frank says:

    Old thread I know, but I wanted to point out one glaring flaw in your example about the field goal kick. If the offense commits a penalty on purpose to gain an advantage… the other team is allowed to decline that penalty.

    The reason I found this site is because of the current news that the NBA might do something about the “hack-a-shaq” fouling strategy. I was trying to see in what other sports can a team purposefully break a rule to give an advantage.