Sunday, December 5, 2010


Completeness is a pretty simple concept. Rules are complete if they you can always get an answer by going to the rulebook and incomplete otherwise. It's so obvious--and so obviously--that we assume the rules of the games we play are complete.

But they rarely are. I was watching a football game today, Colts vs. Cowboys. The Colts called a timeout but they weren't granted it. The Colts committed a penalty that wasn't relevant to a play on the field and it pretty much gave the Cowboys the game when the refs called it.

Now what happens when people argue about whether the refs made a mistake. Colts fans are going to point to fact that the penalty was obscure, is never called, and didn't affect the play. So it shouldn't have been called--fouls are missed or ignored all the time. Cowboys fans are going to point to the rulebook--the rules are the rules and you call them like you see them. But Colts fans will point out that the rules say the Colts can call a timeout. If you look at the video its clear they called a time out long before the play started, but it was just missed. Cowboys fans can then say that's part of the game--not every timeout is recognized. But Colts fans argue that not every penalty is recognized and they know Cowboys fans' argument implies that if the refs missed a call that cost them the game they should accept it. Everyone knows no Cowboys fan would accept that--they get mad about "missed calls" like everyone else.

So the argument is really a mess. Who is actually right according to the rules? You could argue about the literal meaning of the rulebook and about the intent of the rule writings as if their is a right answer to the two critical questions: Do the refs have to recognize a clearly called time out and should the refs call an obscure inconsequential penalty? That is what lawyers do when they argue issues of law. I think most of them think there is a real right answer, or at least most laymen do.

But I don't think there is a right answer. I think American law and the NFL rules are incomplete. They just don't specify what is supposed to happen in all instances. In theory the rules are complete because of a clause like "in the event of something not in the rules the refs should use their best judgment." But when the refs themselves are corrupt or inept (they are often inept, no one doubts that!) then what?

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