The Super Bowl happened this past Sunday night. As a football fan I enjoy the big game in general but as a fan of the New York Giants I was not particularly interested in this one. The New England Patriots played the Philadelphia Eagles. The Patriots are perennial winners and I’m as tired of seeing the Patriots and Tom Brady win as anyone so I had no interest in cheering for them. The Eagles are a rival of the Giants I had no interest in cheering for them either. So though I enjoyed the game I was emotionally distant from it as I watched. That’s just the way the Super Bowl is sometimes.

That distance made me ponder some of the aspects of the game that I might not usually ponder if I was caught up in the drama. Specifically the game got me thinking about how the NFL defines what a catch is. It sounds like a simple thing to define but in recent years a rules change and the advent of super slow motion high definition replays have changed things and made it so that no one knows if a catch is a catch until after the referees look at the replay and say so.

There were two instances in the Super Bowl when it came into play that the referees had to decide via replay if a catch was a catch. Both of the replays went the way of the Eagles and the referees confirmed that the Eagles receivers caught the ball. But it looked to me, and to the announcers of the game, that the call could easily have gone the other way and have it be declared that there was no catch. As a matter of fact the announcers were expecting it to go the other way.

It used to be that in order to make a catch the ball could not touch the ground. That makes sense. I like that rule. Any six year old knows that if you’re having a catch and the ball touches the ground that string of catches is over. You have to start again with one catch. The whole idea of a catch is to not let the ball touch the ground. But back in 2000 there was a playoff game where a Buccaneer’s wide receiver caught the ball but it scrapped the ground as he fell. On replay the referees declared it not a catch because of that. The Bucs and their fans were angry and thought the catch should count. They argued that the wide receiver had total control of the ball and it hitting the ground was incidental. The NFL must have agreed and changed the rule so that that the ball could touch the ground as long as the receiver maintains control of the ball. I never liked this new rule. I still think the ball should never touch the ground in order for it to be a catch. But that’s not the real problem.

The problem with the catch rule as it’s continued to be interpreted over the years is that notion of the ball being under the control of the receiver doesn’t hold water. The full rule is that the receiver has to get two feet in bounds, control the ball with his hands or arms, and maintain control of the ball long enough to make a football move. Plus the receiver has to maintain control of the ball if he falls on the ground. That’s an awful lot of rules about control. The problem as I see it is that the NFL’s notion of control defies all other sports notions of control and sometimes also the laws of physics.

First lets look at baseball. When a pitcher is doing really well and can throw the ball wherever he wants, in or out of the strike zone, they say he has great control. The ball ends up 90 feet away from the pitcher but it’s still seen as him controlling the ball. Why? Because the forces he enacts on the ball controls where the ball ends up. Unless some other force acts on the ball between when the pitcher throws it and when it hits the catcher’s mitt it’s considered to be a product of the pitcher’s control.

In basketball when someone can run and dribble the ball really well he’s considered to be a great ball handler. He controls the ball really well. Dribbling a basketball consists of dropping the ball, letting it bounce up to your hand. And pressing down on the ball again so it goes back to the floor. You’re not even allowed to hold the ball in your hand. Unless some other force acts upon the ball as you’re dribbling your considered to have control of the ball.

Jugglers are masters of controlling balls. Juggling consists of throwing at least three balls into the air with only two hands to manipulate them. In order for it to work at least one ball has to always be in the air. The juggler is considered to be in control of all three balls. Why? Because the balls have to follow the laws of physics. The juggler knows exactly when to throw and catch and exactly where the balls are and have to be. Even if the ball is in the air the juggler is still in control of it. But not in the NFL.

The NFL, with it’s hi-def, super slo-mo cameras now looks for any ball movement as a player is making a catch. If they see ball movement they could consider the ball not under the player’s control. The problem is that ball movement doesn’t mean the ball isn’t under the player’s control. First of all the ball is always moving. Catching a ball is an action. All of the other parts of what makes up a catch are also actions. The player is running, getting his feet down in bounds, and moving his hands to catch a moving ball. Then suddenly the rules call for inaction to define a catch. The ball has to not move within the context of a player’s arms and hands. That defies logic.

One play this year defines to me why the current interpretation of the rule drives people crazy. In a Jets’ game a player caught the ball. As he fell to the ground he, according to the NFL, lost control of the ball and failed to regain control before going out of bounds. What actually happened was that he caught the ball, his arms loosened for a moment, and then he tightened his grip again. With the hi-def, super slo-mo camera you could see the ball was “Loose” as it was between his arms but it was still between his arms. There was no place for it to go. Even though, for a fraction of a second, he wasn’t touching it he was still in control of it. The ball was a bird in a cage. We consider a bird in a cage under control even if it can still move around in the cage. Anything in a cage is considered under control but not in the NFL.

Lot’s of NFL fans and commentators have been complaining about the current interpretation of the rule. That’s because they say the rule doesn’t pass the “Eye test.” That’s when our eyes tell us that it’s a catch but the rules say it’s not. I say the rule doesn’t pass the eye test because we know from countless other sports that “Control” doesn’t need to be defined by being in constant contact with a ball. According to the NFL catch rules a juggler is not in control of the balls he’s juggling. The problem is that we all know he is. That’s what makes a juggler different than the rest of us.