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!