The League

Don Yee
Sports Attorney

Don Yee

A sports attorney and agent based in Los Angeles, Calif.

Law and Sports Don't Mix


It was very unfortunate for Ed Hochuli, the teams involved, and the League. However, it's the nature of sports that these things to happen. One of the reasons I like sports is because it isn't a courtroom, and I fear that because of one unfortunate event, the League implements yet another rule. And if that happens, we move sports closer and closer to a courtroom -- a place where there are lots and lots of rules, with lots and lots of exceptions...which leads to very confusing and unsatisfying results. I, like a lot of fans, simply want to watch a game; not listen to lawyers go back and forth.

Ed Hochuli is widely thought of as a good referee; he just happened to blow his whistle a little too quickly on that one play, and because of yet another rule, was prevented from changing the outcome of his early whistle.

I've taught "sports law" for a number of years, and one of the things I've always taught my students is that sports and law just don't mix. Frankly, more often than not, the intersection of the two sets bad precedents. In this situation, I hope the League and its Competition Committee do whatever they have to do to minimize the number of rules its referees have to abide by, and simply let the referees and their crews exercise a greater degree of discretion. The game is so fast -- much, much faster than what one sees on television -- that referees have very little time to react, so granting them some discretion would give a greater protection from error.

In Hochuli's case, greater discretion would have allowed him to be a sportsman and not a lawyer on the field (he is, ironically, a lawyer off-the-field). He could've have simply gone to the replay, corrected himself, and awarded the ball to San Diego. San Diego would have won the game, the Broncos and their fans would have had no choice but to accept the correct call, and the League would be satisfied with the discretion exercised.

And the rest of us would be spared the tedium of listening to a lot of unnecessary legalese.

By Don Yee  |  September 16, 2008; 1:23 AM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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OK, explain to me why Refs shouldn't be turned into attorneys. With rules changes over the past 25 years, they already turned them into psychologists when they added the word intent to a number of rules.

Posted by: Catcher50 | September 16, 2008 10:25 AM

Most NFL referees (and others) are lawyers. There's nothing ironic about it; the NFL requires a strict memorization of the rules and I believe even has a boot camp for refs every year. The skills that come from memorizing the rules, sorting through their inevitable ambiguities and contradictions, and applying them in real time with minimal screwups are very similar to those attorneys use daily. Plus attorneys make a pretty good living and therefore have both the time and wherewithal to be refs, and the presumed resistance to corruption that, say, the NBA wishes it had right about now.

Giving refs more discretion is all well and good, until one refs uses that discretion to make a dubious or flat out wrong call, and then this discussion inevitably heads back towards the "follow the rules, period" end of the spectrum.

Posted by: Rory | September 16, 2008 10:39 AM

Let's make it a court of equity rather than a court of law-that is, make it right!

Posted by: jvetter | September 16, 2008 11:26 AM

Not so fast. Would the game have been over if SD had been awarded the ball? Maybe, but Denver still had two time outs, and if they could have held the Chargers for downs, would have had roughly 20 seconds after getting the ball.

Moreover, Cutler was closest to his own fumble, but failed to go after it BECAUSE THE WHISTLE HAD BLOWN. You can't unblow a whistle, any more than you can unring a bell.

The Chargers were given two golden chances to preserve their lead, once on a fourth and goal from the nine, and then again on the two point conversion. They failed both times, depite the fact that Denver ran the same play twice in a row. Too bad.

Posted by: xausa | September 16, 2008 11:32 AM

Do you watch professional football? If so, you may have noticed that it contains more than a few rules. It seems like every single week some rule comes up which nobody has ever heard of before. The NFL rulebook has to be the most complex (by far) of any professional sport. This is part of the mystique of football -- the rulebook takes a lifetime to master.

My initial reaction to Hochuli's call was to jump on the guy, but in retrospect I have to say that I respect him for making the technically correct call on the replay. I'm sure that Ed Hochuli wished for nothing more than to be able to pretend that the play hadn't been blown dead, but he stuck to his guns and did the right thing.

There is a good reason for this rule -- players are trained to pull up as soon as they hear the whistle, so it's not fair to reward a player for something he does after the whistle. In this situation it was clear that the Chargers would have recovered even if the whistle did not blow, so the rule unfortunately produced a result which was unfair. But that's football.

I admire Ed Hochulis for sticking to his guns and interpreting the rules by the book -- even though it made him personally look bad...

Posted by: Ace | September 16, 2008 11:38 AM

I watched the end of the game and as I have reffed for many years, my first reaction was "oh damn!" when the whistle blew. A refs worst nightmare is when an inadvertent whistle situation occurs. I am positive that given the opportunity to correct the call Ed Hochuli would have. I consider Ed Hochuli to be one of the best refs in the NFL.

Posted by: meatloaf | September 16, 2008 12:20 PM

I really feel for Hochuli. As a football official at the high school level, including playoffs, I can tell you THE worst thing that can happen is an inadvertant whistle. Most offs I worked with use a finger whistle rather than one hanging on a lanyard to prevent the natural urge of "biting the whistle" (having it in your mouth, ready to go) and blowing too early. I'm surprised to see so many in the NFL biting whistles. Watch - you'll see. So Ed let a natural urge get to him and that was wrong. His interpretation of the rule however was absolutely correct. And believe you me, it's no fun explaining it to a coach, not to mention dealing with the Mom's and Dad's waiting for you in the parking lot after the game.

Posted by: hokie78 | September 16, 2008 12:22 PM

While I enjoy American football, there is a tremendous amount of time spent arguing the rules during each game. The amount of time during which the ball is in play is very low. Soccer and basketball have much more continuous action.

Posted by: sports fan | September 16, 2008 3:03 PM

Of course the NFL ref association will support one of its own refs (and its former president). Is this even worthy of a news story? To sign and digg a petition to financially reprimand or suspend Ed Hochuli and to comment on NFL's slap on the wrist given to him yesterday, visit here:

There should be some sort of tangible punishment, i.e., fine or suspension, because it is unmistaken that this call was botched. Just as the Comish Goodell holds NFL players and coaches accountable for their performances, he should apply the same standard to NFL referees. It is necessary for the credibility of the game.

Posted by: Frederick Twain | September 16, 2008 3:04 PM

this is a dumb argument. law and sports are nothing alike.

Posted by: jamie | September 17, 2008 8:49 AM

OMG! I'm a JET fan, we get San Diego next Monday night, nobody mentioned the tragedy of an undeserved Charger start at 0-2, who do you think these guys are going to take it out on?
Seriously though,
some good thoughtful comments above.

Posted by: greengene | September 17, 2008 9:50 AM

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