What the NFL Rulebook Teaches Us About American Government

It is often said on the American right that the cultural heritage of our country is one of limited government. This statement is usually invoked to premise why an invariably democratic bill, by virtue of expanding the scope of government, should be viewed as un-American, as a violation of our supposed cultural abhorrence of over-regulation.

There has always been a lot missing in this formulation. Technology and the rise of economics join innumerable other factors in distinguishing our governmental epoch from those preceding it, but what about this contention that Americans innately prefer freedom to regulation? Does it hold water outside of certain politicians saying so?

Funny enough, a convincing rebuttal to that claim is found in one of the most widely beloved national pastimes: professional sports. At the moment, the three games that our nation spends billions of dollars and innumerable hours consuming are football, baseball, and basketball. All have two things in common: They were born and developed in America, and they are all hugely regulated on the field of play.

The rules governing the gameplay of our Big Three sports may not translate directly to policy in the sphere of real government, but they do have a chance of revealing the aesthetics that Americans support in the pursuit of fair play. Ultimately, a sport is most popular among an audience for whom the competition is consistent with their ethics and norms. For example, in class-calcified England, fans permit the fact that only a handful of teams have ever won the Premier League’s standings table. In the United States, that would be an outrage. To the contrary, we institute salary caps to strive toward parity.

Our country’s Constitution is a study in economy of language, a quality that gives evidence to the claim about the American preference for minimal government. Yet on the field of play, it resembles none of the laws governing the sports we invented and love. Actually, what our Constitution resembles is the rulebook of soccer.

The sport of soccer claims two superlatives: it is the most popular and most simple sport in the world. The entire FIFA rulebook is less than 40 brochure-sized pages, written for maximum brevity and room for interpretation. All government of gameplay consists of 17 laws. Much like our Constitution, FIFA’s Laws of the Game are minimal and unobtrusive.

Of course, soccer is not American. Some in this country enjoy it, but as is reiterated every World Cup, our sports-hungry public may never fully embrace the Beautiful Game.

What we prefer instead are sports featuring restrictive, pedantic officiating that make soccer, rugby, and cricket look like the true products of a society liberated from the yoke of government. The Official Rules of Major League Baseball clocks in at 240 pages; the NFL’s rulebook is almost 300. The NBA’s rule book is super-American at a gaunt 50 pages, although with thousands of more words than FIFA’s.

To govern 22 players on the field, soccer utilizes three referees and American football requires seven. The ratios for on-field players to referees are as follows:

American Sports

Football: 3.1 players per ref
Baseball: between 2.5 and 3.25 depending on baserunners
Basketball: 3.3
Hockey: 3

“International” Sports

Soccer: 7.3
Cricket: (including video official) 7.3
Rugby: (including video official) 10

In other words, the gameplay of sports developed in the United States is tightly controlled and the players are watched like hawks, much more so than sports originating in places that supposedly exemplify government overreach, like Europe.

This paradox is reinforced further by looking at the roles for which the referees of different sports are responsible. A soccer referee’s job is to apply the spirit of the rules according to his judgment. For example, even the offsides call (the single complex rule in the game) only applies if a player in illegal position is, in the ref’s opinion, “involved” in the play. To the consternation of American sports fans, a soccer ref will even let the clock run past the allotted time if ending the half would truncate a scoring opportunity. Such a liberty would be unthinkable in our sports. Aside from basic oversight like out-of-bounds and number of players, soccer officials stay out of the way.

Compare that to the reams of trivial and obscure statute American sports’ referees are required to enforce. Football legislates distinctions between “offsides,” “encroachment,” and “unabated to the quarterback,” to name three of an infinite canon of annoying rules. (Has your team ever had a touchdown called back by a minor illegal formation?) NBA officials have to enforce backcourt and lane violations on either end of the court, in addition to incessant foul calls and slavish clock-watching. Baseball — the most American sport of all, the one most closely associated with our heritage — is possibly the world’s only game that cannot be played without on-field government calling balls and strikes (not to mention balks and other endless minutiae). American athletes and spectators, past and present, not only abide big government clogging up the flow of our games but ceaselessly add more.

The NFL in particular enforces its laws at the expense of common sense. Too often, in my opinion, games hinge on obscure, irrelevant penalties. The infractions have no effect on gameplay, but they are called and enforced under the justification of the NFL referee’s two favorite words: “by rule.” And it is here that we find a hint of why Americans legislate our sports so heavily.

The effect of invoking “by rule” is to eliminate subjective judgment by deferring to the prearranged commandment of the football gods. The dense rulebooks, the instant replay, and the “by rules” all combine to let players know exactly how they will be governed. Contrast that with less-legislated, lighter-officiated sports, where more responsibility is given to the expert judgment of the referee. This type of officiating holds the potential for capricious authority. This is what American sports seek to minimize. If I can extrapolate this observation back to the larger culture, it would seem to reveal that the true American ideal of fair play is objectivity from our authority figures. At least in sports, we don’t mind increasing the size of our statute to achieve it.