Wednesday, December 21, 2011

College Football and the Nature of Reality

I spend much of my free time following sports. In my lucid moments, rare as they are, I find this use of time hard to justify. What do I get out of following sports? Does it make me a better person? Does it make the world a better place?

As you can imagine, I've been able to come up with quite a few justifications (i.e., rationalizations) over the years. But today, for the first time, my sports-following habit provoked me to reflect on the nature of reality. The specific impetus for this is the controversy surrounding the decisive play in the recent Big Ten Football Championship game, in which the Wisconsin Badgers beat Michigan State in a thrilling comeback.

The decisive play was a penalty. Wisconsin, up by 3, was forced to punt with just about a minute left in the game. Michigan State returned the punt all the way to the three-yard line, but was flagged for "running into the kicker."  Safety Isaiah Lewis committed the foul.

The result of the penalty was a first down for the Badgers, which allowed them to assume the victory formation and run out the clock.

When an official makes such a game-deciding call, there will be controversy.  There are two points of contention about this particular play:  (1) Did Lewis actually run into the punter? (2) Did the punter flop?

There really can be no dispute that the answer to both questions is "yes."  The still photo included here shows clearly that Lewis did run into the punter's legs while he was in the kicking motion.  The video of the play also shows that after this moment the punter twirled to his left, far more violently that the contact itself would seem to have caused.

Thus, the only real question is whether Lewis's contact with the punter was "incidental," as incidental contact with a kicker is not a foul. The referee's judgment that the contact was not incidental is defensible, I think, because Lewis made contact with the legs of the punter while the punter was in his punting motion. The purpose of the rule is to protect the punter while he in this very vulnerable position, so any contact made with the legs at that moment cannot be incidental.  In all my years of watching football, I have never seen contact like this not called a penalty.

Some maintain, however, that Lewis did not even touch the punter.  Among those who hold this belief, apparently, is Lewis himself, the person who did in fact run into the punter.  Lewis reviewed the tape and said, "personally, I didn't feel like I hit the guy."

How can this be?

I'll admit the statement is ambiguous.  He says he "didn't" feel like he hit the guy. This leaves open the possibility that what he's saying is just that he didn't think he hit him at the time. That would certainly be understandable. Football players are well-armored, so in the heat of the moment it's possible that Lewis didn't notice the impact from the somewhat glancing contact he made with the punter.

Still, Lewis seems to be maintaining that he actually still believes he didn't hit the punter, when the tape shows clearly that he did.  But perhaps the key words in his statement are "personally" and "feel"; he says he "personally" doesn't "feel like" he hit the guy. This seems to be an assertion that reality is subjective, and the videotape is no greater evidence of what really happened than his own visceral memory. There are no facts, only feelings.

Or, in other words, "Who are you going to believe—me or your lying eyes?"

In the end, of course, the only reality that matters is the one that the referee saw, and made. And in that reality, the Badgers are going to the Rose Bowl. Again.

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