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Pass Interference:  An Equitable Proposal

Pass Interference:  An Equitable Proposal
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By Tom Tallach, Ed. D. |

There’s been a lot of talk about equity lately.  Yes, I understand the difference between equity and equality.  However, for the purpose of this verbal pun, it really doesn’t matter so please work with me.  I’d call myself more than a casual fan of professional football, though I’ve not yet warmed up to some of the new leagues…it takes time, ya’ know.  It’s tough to watch an NFL game without seeing some messaging about equity.  Whether it’s more direct or more inferred, the concept of equity is there.  It’s on helmets, shoes, and socks…it’s written in end zones.  It’s a big deal.  It’s also ironic that a league consumed with the idea of equity harbors one of the most inequitable game rules of all time.  Really, it’s a pair of rules that results in defensive backs playing the part of second-class citizens.

Prior to 1917, the penalty for defensive pass interference was ten yards from the previous spot and an automatic first down.  Then, in an effort to promote the forward pass (somewhat new to pro football at the time) and discourage defenders from trading a long reception for ten yards and a first down, the rules were changed to award the offense the ball at the spot of the foul along with a first down.  To this day, the penalty for offensive pass interference remains at ten yards from the previous spot and does NOT result in a loss of down.

My aim is not to debate the wisdom of disincentivizing the defender from making a rational decision nor, for that matter, promoting the forward pass in an effort to make the game safer and more entertaining for fans.  It does not consider the incidence rate of each violation (defensive pass interference occurs three times more frequently) or points of emphasis regarding how officials apply or interpret the rules.  My position is one rooted in equity.  One often hears that defensive backs must have a “short memory” but self-imposed Dementia is superficial and ignores the systemic inequity.  While it is seldom discussed, an underlying assumption is surely that, if not for the interference of the defender, the receiver would have most likely made the catch.  If we apply that assumption equitably, then interference committed by the offense most likely prevents an interception by the defense.

There is controversy among fans regarding the spot foul rule for defensive pass interference.  Many believe that the penalty is too severe with the complexion of games changing too dramatically based on a judgement call.  But what if the concept of equity were applied?  What if the penalty for offensive pass interference was a change of possession at the spot of the foul?  Would that create a disincentive for the offense?  Maybe.  Offenses would absolutely think twice before attempting a pick play in hope that interference would not be called.  Would it deny fans the guilty pleasure of the occasional “Hail Mary” attempt?  I think not.  The likelihood of an interception, typically resulting in a valueless possession, is already considered in those decisions.  I don’t know exactly how the game would be impacted.  However, it would be more equitable.

Dr. Tom Tallach serves as the head of the Department of Sport Science in the School of Kinesiology at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas.  A lifelong fan of the NFL, he occasionally dabbles in satirical prose.


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