The Sports Revolution: The Definition of Down

Let me set the scene for you: College football, as is, is a gross miscarriage of justice in all forms, a charlatan that pretends to properly judge the talent of teams and players alike and to prepare them for the NFL and real life.

Let me reset the scene for you: College football is perfect because its major problem has been fixed. That’s right, we change the rules so that you’re not down when your knee hits the ground and nobody touches you.

One of my “esteemed” colleagues has used this space on previous Fridays to lament the trivial woes of the Bowl Championship Series. Let me, in one two-claused sentence, dispossess him of his revolutionary cause. Sports have the meaning we ascribe to them. That is all.

College football’s bigger problem, in fact, is in the premature termination of plays when the knee of the ballhandler touches the ground. It does not matter if he is pushed to the ground, or “tackled” as the parlance dictates. It does not matter if he is touched while down, as in the NFL. Nope, it’s a simple cause-and-effect, Cochranesque platitude: When the knee hit the ground, the runner be down.

Now, it is my belief—and I imagine you will share it with me—that college football is played at a level of quality that is one step below professional football. The indicators of this are obvious: Players only require one foot inbounds to earn possession of a catch, the ball has stripes, the best players strive to and inevitably move on to the professional level, etc. College football thus operates more or less like a minor league for the NFL: It is a didactic stage in a player’s development. As a result, we should want the student-athletes to learn the fundamentals of a game they may go on to play at a higher level, and wins and losses are really secondary to the overall goal of individual athletic improvement.

This is why ending a play when a player’s knee hits the ground—regardless of the means by which it reached that territorial end—is against the very spirit of college football. It is the only rule which makes playing the game more difficult in college than in the NFL. On a low-thrown ball in the NFL, a receiver may go down to one knee, make a fundamentally sound catch, and then proceed to gain a few yards before he is tackled. The college rule encourages a wideout to attempt a more difficult catch, bending down or one-handing the ball, for no reason.

How many times have we seen a professional receiver go down to his knees to make an important catch, only to get up and run for extra yards and, perhaps, a first down or score? How often have we watched in horror as a college player tripped over another teammate or his own feet and fell to the ground without a defensive player around him, or worse yet, fumbled the ball while trying to steady himself and keep the play alive to hand the No. 1 team in the country its first loss of the season?

Imagine rules in other amateur sports that promote poor fundamentals: A minor-league infielder must catch that high pop-up with one hand. Palming the ball is not only permitted on the college basketball court, but mandatory on every dribble; try playing defense on the perimeter or completing a quick fast break with that one in place. Oh, and in amateur golf, you can’t keep your head down.

It is just as nonsensical to punish our college footballers for making the smart, fundamental play on a low-thrown pass or for trying to maintain their balance when untouched by a defender. Furthermore, it makes things easier on the defense. Not going to catch someone in the open field? Well, why chase after him, when on the off-chance that he trips and falls over his own two feet, you don’t need to touch him because he’s down anyway? What kind of example are we setting here in regards to fundamentals and effort???

We all know that college football has taken a hit, that its reputation is hanging so precariously in the national consciousness that it has gone out and hired the best and most intimidating propagandists it could find. Well, here’s the way to change all that without the need for any of the spin. When the knee hits the ground, the player can still run around. Perhaps it doesn’t flow as well, but it is seldom that life’s basic truths can be broken down into platitudes with their own rhyme scheme.

So college football, a minor alteration in how you define being “down” can lift you up to new heights.

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Mike on December 4, 2009 at 11:15 PM

    Hey Tim,

    Sorry we couldn’t get together over the Thanksgiving holiday. Hopefully we can do something during the Christmas/New Years season. I wanted to let you know, as I procrastinate in studying for my law school finals, that this blog is really incredible. I loved this article as well as some of the previous ones which I have read (Especially the one which gave a shout out to old Arthur M. Schlesinger). I know I’m no expert in sports writing, but I think you’re really starting something special. Hope everyone’s great at home, and I look forward to catching up/reading new articles.

    Mike Fasano


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