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  • Writer's pictureJoe D'Orsie

Why 15 Yard Penalties are the New Normal

What if what we're seeing on the gridiron is a microcosm of what's happening in our hearts, societally?

This weekend I noticed a parallel between society and spirituality. This one is a bit more cultural than our reckless and selfish driving habits, which I wrote about last year. This one, too, happens to be a topic where I have some personal knowledge. It has to do with football.

I believe that sometimes we get to see, so long as we're paying attention, prophetic glimpses into where we're heading, either individually or on a national scale. These might serve as warnings or reality checks. Or, if that's hyperspiritual for you, consider this phenomenon as simply a common symptom for the general disease.

The whistle blasts, and the all-too-familiar phrase wipes out your team's nice play... UNNECESSARY ROUGHNESS... ON THE DEFENSE... 15 YARD PENALTY FROM THE SPOT OF THE FOUL... FIRST DOWN. For those of you who are fans, you've likely picked up on the trend in recent years, on every level of the game, that the rules have changed drastically to promote better safety, or so we're told. This trend, although the motive seems good, has changed the game signficantly. In my opinion, it's changed the game for the worse. This onslaught of personal fouls, 'targeting' calls, and 'unnecessary roughness' is destroying the game that I love. And just to be clear, I'm not against personal fouls or roughness flags, but these can't begin to include good hits and hustle plays, which is the case already.

I've always been a fan of football. Not only that, I was blessed and privileged to play through middle and high school, and then go on to play at Division 1 Duquesne University, where I was part of a team that won conference championships each year that I hung my hat in my locker. I'm establishing all of this only to make the point that I'm not coming at this from a place of ignorance. I know the game, and although you may not share my view on this, it's coming from a place of experience.

For starters, here's just three quick facts about the trend of excessive penalties, meant to protect the person with the ball. I'll then get to the spiritual aspect of all of this.

1. It's football - football always has been among the more violent and dangerous sports to play. You run the risk when you take the field of injury at any given moment. That's OK. Young men have the choice to either play football or not play football. If you don't want to be subject to the possibility of getting injured, you probably shouldn't play football.

2. Technological advances in padding and equipment have made the sport much safer. Even since I graduated, gear has become lighter, more protective, and much safer. That's a good thing.

3. The new targeting and roughness penalties do NOT take into account the speed of the game. It's very easy to rewind a play and watch it in slow motion. It's NOT easy, however, when you're the defender tasked with stopping a running back that runs a 40 M dash at 4 1/2 seconds. Imagine pausing before making a tackle just to be sure your helmet is not positioned in a way that might be interpreted as "targeting." That's not practical. That's not football.

The New Rules Themselves

Without getting into a ton of sports jargon, suffice it to say that several rules have sprung up in the last decade that have, in my opinion, denegrated the game of football. At the NFL & NCAA levels, these rules include "targeting," and "roughing the quarterback." These rules disavow leading with one's helmet to make a tackle, and just about any contact with a quarterback after he's delivered the ball. These rules, if they're enforced strictly, could make for a very penalty-laden, boring game. A perfect example of this was last weekend during the Cowboys/Jets game. 10 penalties in a row were called. 10 straight penalties were called before a single legitimate play was run from scrimmage. If it were the 90's, it might have been two or three. That's just excessive.

The Parallel - Everything is a Violation

We've covered, at least briefly, how impractical and counterintuitive this new brand of penalties are to the game. But how is the penalty frenzy a cultural symbol? In my view, it's quite simple; it expresses the new societal norm that everything is a violation. Excessive penalties, infractions, and rules are stacked one upon the other just like government regulations, 'safe space' zones, or the constant barrage of what we can and cannot say. All of this has to do with fear. But what are we afraid of? In the context of football, one might say that we're afraid of people getting hurt. OK, but in all honesty I don't think that's what's driving it. I think, rather, it's the fear of man. The fear of repercussion. The fear of backlash. The fear of a lawsuit. The fear of seeming a certain way. The fear of losing ticket or merchandise sales.

It's impossible to avoid offending, dissappointing, or upsetting someone, and next to everything in our society is becoming a violation! And, speaking specifically about football, it's impossible to negate every single injury. It just happens. That's the nature of football. That's why NFL players cash in big time. It's not just because of their talent, speed or strength, it's because of the risk associated with their vocation.

The Result

Eventually, if this trend continues, football as we know it will probably turn into flag football. Or, what would be worse, this tendency to penalize anything that might be deemed as unsafe will destroy the game, and it will cease to exist. Culturally speaking, our speech and actions will be censored to a greater degree, and reproving, correcting, and exhorting one another will be out of bounds. Essentially, it will be frowned upon to tell the truth. This is already happening. All of this walking on egg shells and offense-taking is in direct opposition to some of our main instructions as Christians: to exhort, rebuke, correct. To tell the truth! The Bible tells us that the function of prophecy is to edify, [exhort] and to comfort. The Bible also makes clear in 2nd Timothy 3:16 that the function of the Word of God includes rebuking and correcting, as well as teaching and training in righteousness. In a couple of occasions, too, the Bible states that "everyone did what was right in their own eyes." This wasn't a compliment but rather a critique of the baselessness that Israel found itself in before judgement came. (JUDGES 17:6 & JUDGES 21:25)

"But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men." 1ST CORINTHIANS 14:3

Rebuking, correcting, exhorting, and telling the sometimes unpopular truth cannot leave our discourse, or with it goes accountability, responsibility, and some of the most integral characteristics of love, like not keeping a record of wrongs, not being self-seeking, and not delighting in evil doing, but rather rejoicing in the truth. (1st CORINTHIANS 13:4-7) The good news is love powers through these cultural pressures. The kind of love that is OK with risking offending someone in order to deliver the truth always prevails. The critical question then for each of us is: are we able to love like that? Are we willing to risk what culture detests in order to love like Jesus? If we all say yes, and our actions follow suit, we'll win the war for our speech, for telling the truth, and for being responsible and accountable, PLUS we'll end up with better football.

-J.F D'Orsie - Praise Community Church

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