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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2006/02/16
by David Steinberg

Not So Super

So Melissa asked me yesterday what I was going to write about. "Let me guess. You’re going to write about the Super Bowl."
‘Nah,’ I said, ‘I’m over it. It was a rough loss but it’s time to move on and think about other things.’
So with that in mind, here’s my column about the Super Bowl.
Seattle is a hard luck sports city. Boston used to like to talk about how it never won anything, but the Red Sox and Patriots at least frequently made it to the championship games until finally falling short. Until last Sunday (as of time of writing), Seattle was the only city with both a baseball and football team that had never been to either a World Series or a Super Bowl [1]. Making it to the Super Bowl was a huge deal. Sure it sucked that no one was taking us seriously as a team or a city, but this was the biggest sports moment in our city’s history, so the excitement was contagious. of course that meant that the Seahawks would play – by far – their worst game of the season that day.
While I’m going to remember the crucial dropped passes, the missed field goals, and Darrell Jackson not getting his second foot inbounds at the end of the first half, the majority of the people watching seemed to focus on the officiating. It did seem, especially while watching the game, that the Seahawks were getting the short end of the stick. Some of that was an illusion caused by ABC not seeing a flag (that presumably was thrown) before the Hawks completed a pass to the Steelers’ 2; that made it look like the referees threw the flag after the result of the play was known and did so to intentionally take it away from the team. Even with that misperception, there’s no question that just about any questionable call that could have gone against the Seahawks did and that they did seem to be called on their bigger plays. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to evolve into a rant about how the NFL wanted Pittsburgh to win and therefore threw the Super Bowl. I don’t believe for a second that this game was fixed. The NFL has a much bigger problem than that.
Football is starting to go down the basketball route. On every possession in a basketball game, there are multiple fouls. The rulebook and the play of the game no longer resemble each other. This means that fouls get called pretty much at random, by what the referees see and by what they decide was important enough to be called. This leads too all sorts of conspiracy theories being believed. Home teams get the calls. Star players get special treatment. The NBA wants big markets to win and will rig games so that happens. When there’s no logic towards the calls that get made, people have to make up their own theories. Our minds are designed to form patterns, after all.
Football has an additional problem. Unlike any other sport in the United States, the rule book is unavailable to anyone outside the league. Remember the tuck rule play? We discovered – during a playoff game no less – that the rules the NFL has to decide what is a fumble don’t always conform to what we think is a fumble. How did we know this? Because the NFL said so. There’s no document anywhere available to the average fan that says what a ‘football move’ is or even what it means to catch a ball inbounds. Some people think that getting one foot inbounds and then kicking the pylon at the corner of the endzone with the other is enough. Others – including (at least for now) the NFL – say that that’s a misinterpretation. I say… well I say nothing because I can’t see the rulebook. How am I supposed to know what happened if I’m not even allowed to see the rules?
What this reminds me of – in a much smaller scale of course – is Bush’s wiretap program. The problem with getting wiretaps on al-Queda members isn’t that we’re spying on people who want to blow us up, it’s that we have to accept on faith that the people we’re spying on actually are the people we’re looking for. The point of getting a warrant is to remove the step where we have to take on faith that we’re not spying on people whose sole crime is disliking the president. Without accountability, conspiracy theories thrive. There should be a stronger argument against that than just, ‘Trust me.’ Similarly, there should be a better way of explaining bad calls than to say, ‘That’s the rule, trust us.’
The NFL dodged a bullet this time. The Seahawks are not a very popular team nationally and don’t have a player like Joey Porter who is willing to rant. The league should take this chance to renew public faith in their league. Put the full rulebook on the web. Simplify the rules so the referees won’t have to interpret them so much. While you’re at it, either change or enforce the rules so we don’t have issues where people can say, ‘Yeah that technically is a violation, but it’s never called.’ Sports only exist because people believe that the games are fair. It’s a lot easier to keep trust than to try to regain it.
[1] Note: that is playing a little unfair as the Astros reached the World Series for the first time last fall to break Houston’s streak.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at
He is the stats section editor
for The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at

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