Saturday, November 17, 2012

Arguing against the Infield Fly Rule

Over at the Sports Law Blog, Howard Wasserman continues to try to make the case for the Infield Fly Rule but worries that his four-point test is running into a problem considering the "kneel down" or "victory formation" in football. Here is the essence of his concern:
This will expand on The Atlantic piece. In that essay, I identified four features of the infield fly situation that justify a special rule: 1) The fielding team has a strong incentive to intentionally not do what they are ordinarily expected to do in the game (catch the ball); 2) the fielding team gains a substantial benefit or advantage by intentionally not doing what is ordinarily expected (this is the prong I want to flesh out in economic terms of optimal outcomes, costs incurred, and benefits gained for each team); 3)the play is slow-developing and not fast-moving, so the player has time to think and control what he does; and 4) even doing what is ordinarily expected of them, the opposing players are powerless to stop the play from developing or to prevent the team from gaining this overwhelming advantage.
As I said, I believe the infield fly is the only situation in all of sport that possesses all four features. But in conversations with friends and readers, one situation keeps getting brought up: The kneel down (or "Victory Formation") at the end of football games.
I like his reasoning with the four-point test, but ultimately I believe it fails. I don't like the IFR generally. And I think this test does not sufficiently justify it (or change my mind). Below is the comment I've left on his post. Check out his entire post, and judge for yourself. The Sports Law Blog is a thoughtful source I follow regularly and generally don't quibble with. Messing with those guys is like a sixth grader picking a fight with the entire seventh grade.

My comment:
I really like your reasoning, but I ultimately believe I disagree. 
I think the example of the kneel down is problematic in a few respects. On point one especially but touching on the others, this seems an incorrect or arbitrary description. We should ordinarily expect that an offense is doing its best to continually put its team in the best position to win. This includes running the ball in a play that is unlikely to gain great yardage much less score but that puts the team in a position to score later on. It also includes running to force a trailing opponent to use valuable time outs to stop the clock. It also includes taking a safety rather than give an opponent very good field position for a touchdown opportunity. It also includes (last one, but I think these are progressively important) a defense that intercepts a ball late in a game thrown by a trailing team's offense falling down rather than advancing the ball and risking a fumble. 
If we are to take your four-point test and apply it to football, it seems we must start making a lot of judgment calls restricting these types of plays among others (my apologies for the redundancy, but this is a new point): An offensive team running the ball and falling down in bounds late in the game on 3rd and 20 to force the opponent to use a time out; A team taking a safety on purpose; A defense that is winning late in the game not advancing an interception because of the risk of fumble. My problem with the four-point test is not so much that it will have to be applied to so many other situations potentially, but that I don't find the IFR to be such a problem. It is a bang-bang, during the regular course of play event that happens to create both a situation of advantage (IFF executed properly) for one team as well as the time to execute it. This happens a lot in all sports. Should we prohibit fast breaks in basketball if enough of the defense is not able to contest the play? Should we force a football team on offense, up by one point, with one minute to play, and with no opponent time outs to score a touchdown when they would rather run out the clock and disallow the opposing team's offense from getting the ball back (reference: NY Giants versus NE Patriots in last year's Super Bowl)?