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The NFL’s New Overtime Rule Won’t Make Anything More Fair

Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

The principal reason that the National Football League rulebook is thicker than a rhinoceros souffle is because there's always some whiny dope (usually an owner) who wants remedy for something that happened to his team that turned out badly. It doesn't make the defeat feel any better but, it does remind people in power that when they whine, they will be heard.

Thus the new overtime rule, which essentially tries to enforce the alien concept of fairness to a sport built on a gigantic Jenga tower of unfairness. The original rule was a coin flip followed by sudden death; first team to score wins, and tough darts if one team never got a possession. Then it was altered to its current bastardy, in which a first-possession field goal did not end the game because field goal kickers are somehow instruments of Satan—until you get Justin Tucker in which case they are gods among men with more fluid hips.

Now, because the Indianapolis Colts and Philadelphia Eagles held their breaths until the other 30 teams turned blue, there is a new rule for playoff games: both teams get a guaranteed possession no matter what. This, from the last group of people in sport to complain that too many kids get trophies whether they win or not.

The new rule, which you hate no matter how much you say you like it, essentially admits that the NFL's myriad other rule changes have made defense a hopeless endeavor. Not being able to tackle isn't your fault, Timmy. Blowing a coverage is just bad people being mean to you. The owners don't like defense so they don't want it interfering with everyone's good time. Everyone gets a chance in one-way football, and then you lose and fire the offensive coordinator. What's a fairer deal than that?

Except that sports is meant to be unfair, in that your-luck-isn't-always-good kind of way. Maybe not on your kid's Little League team. There, sports is meant to be as unpleasant as possible for the ones playing because adults show up and ruin everything with their cheap snacks-after-practice come-ons. Yes we hear you saying, But that means a coin flip decides the game, to which we say, Then get someone who knows how to do that. Warren Bankston of the then-Oakland Raiders went 16-1 in coin flips in 1976, leading in part to the Raiders groining the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI.

The point is, mastering the coin flip can be done. There is surely an algorithm for it; it just requires someone in Football Ops to get off his or her ass and start applying a solution. And if one cannot be found, ditch the coin flip and make it something else, like rochambeau, or Final Jeopardy, or nine-letter Cyrillic Wordle. Make them work for it, and if your guy isn't as smart as the other guy, well, scout better. Maybe every team drafting someone from an Ivy League school just for such contingencies is where you should be investing your ill-gotten gains. Plus, and this is a particularly delicious bit of hypocrisy from a group of people who value hypocrisy as a vulture values roadkill, you could draft the smartest woman as well as the smartest man to answer the question, thereby demonstrating that the NFL cares about ... well, OK, let's not lose all perspective here.

But let's move past the whole coin flip concept entirely and get down to brass tacks. Fairness isn't the issue here. Skill is. If fairness were the goal, every game should end in a tie. Games are constructed to create and reward advantages, to expose and punish disadvantages, and every team in the NFL has, does, and will always cheat the rulebook whenever possible to create said advantages. To insist on any system of fairness from these amoral brigands is to misunderstand who they are and why they behave as they do. Fairness is a lie. You will know this when the new overtime system reveals some new and arcane inequality, at which point Jim Irsay and Jeff Lurie will be back at the subsequent owners meeting screeching that the system needs to be made fairer than fair.

The NHL figured out postseason overtime decades ago, and it is based on the simple truth that playoff games should build tension, and that everything can end in a moment. People aren't tuning in for fairness, they're tuning in for drama. They're tuning in for surprises and sudden endings and weird breaks that create stories they can share with their fellow drunks decades from now. They are not basking in the glow of fairness. Nothing will be a bigger drag than a game in which one team scores a touchdown and the other one goes four-and-home. The new rule says you get sudden death after the first two possessions, when the clearest path to joy is sudden death after no possessions. No-frills sudden death is the fairest system there is, and always has been.

Besides, there is no evidence that football owners make things better by applying their own whims to something. If Lurie and Irsay or any of their fellow moneyed invertebrates have an idea, there should be a rule that allows an independent arbiter to say, Oh, shut up. Get up some money and buy a cornerback, you blithering simp. Besides, you're already late for the stadium-money-from-taxpayers symposium chaired by Amy Strunk and Kim Pegula. You don't want to keep them waiting. They'll get cranky if you wander in late because you took your eye off the ball and started thinking that overtime is more important than civic extortion.

In sum, the new rule sucks because it tries to apply fake fairness in an unfair business, and fairness only lasts until one of them figures out a way to make it unfair. Then they'll put courtesy receivers in the end zone, or move the 20-yard-line to the 23, or some other idiocy that someone said was "fair." That's why they hire people to take fairness provisions and turn them into cheating opportunities, for Christ's sake. They deserve to keep their jobs, since they're clearly so good at them. Now that's fair.

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