What the NFL Catch Rule Teaches Us About Morality

Catch Rule

Amos 5:15 says, “Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gates.” While culture may seem to fight and squabble over what is good, evil and just, we only need to direct our gaze towards America’s most popular sport to see the importance of clear definitions in regards to right and wrong.

This week NFL owners and coaches are assembled in Boca Raton, Florida to discuss a myriad of all things football. Some of the more notable conversations will revolve around the nineteen new rule amendments/proposals set to be reviewed by the Competition Committee.

Some of the proposed rule changes are more cut and dry. Others are more subjective. For instance the Competition Committee is proposing its own rule that if any player is flagged for “certain types” of personal fouls twice in one game, that player would be ejected. NFL fans and media pundits have been chatting this week about what actually constitutes “certain types” of fouls for such a motion. Throwing a punchy would apparently qualify, but an aggressive and intentional face mask might not. Taunting would qualify, but who is the judge as to what a taunt is? A celebratory dance done in the direction of the opposing team? Mere language? Or something altogether more extreme?

Additionally the Washington Redskins are proposing an ability to challenge personal foul calls. This would innately require closer introspection as to what qualifies a “personal foul.” Carolina is proposing a motion to expand the language surrounding intentional grounding. Still most fans and media types are even more irritated by the fact that the NFL is not addressing its dreaded “catch rule,” the rule which qualifies what is a catch verses what isn’t a catch. The common reprieve of the distraught commentator this year was, “Apparently I don’t even know what a catch is anymore.”

As I listen to the debates surrounding these issues I’m increasingly struck by the outrage which accompanies the subjective language of these proposals. Fans, teams and experts are all clamoring for something objective, an increase in clarity so as to know with greater decisiveness what is wrong and what is right.

This is because the NFL is showing us in practice what culture tends to disbelieve in reality: morality needs boundaries, otherwise chaos emerges. In this instance the society of the NFL is at stake due to a lack of clarity surrounding the boundary markers of rule based morality. However you don’t need to look far in our culture to see the sliding scale of subjective morality moving in the opposite direction.

What was immoral ten years ago became moral five years ago, and today is even a recommended activity in culture. This graying of what is right and what is wrong is often celebrated as cultural progression. This sounds tolerant, but this type of tolerance sounds more like a disaster. It’s nonsensical.

A culture which seeks to call wrong right and right wrong isn’t actually solving the problem of hostility, it’s creating it. When there are no clear standards of morality, and if morality is the barometer for “what is good” (be it culturally, religiously, or morally), we fail to know what is good in any situation. The result is disunity and disharmony. This is what it means to declare peace when there is no peace (Ezek. 13:10).

Instead the Bible calls both members of society and leaders in society to create clear standards of what is good. Romans 13 lays out an idealistic government which is best for both believer and non-believer. In this system the government seeks to approve and protect what is good (Rom. 13:3) and punish what is wrong (Rom. 13:4). When looking to our presidential candidates and our City Counsel, and our own hearts, we must not be unconcerned with “what is good.” We should also guard ourselves from thinking our churches and “Christian-culture” is already doing a sufficient work in this area.

John Stott explains:

“But the advocates of the ‘new morality’ or ‘situation ethics’ go considerably further than this. They insist that now ‘nothing is prescribed except love’. In fact ‘love is the end of the law’ because love is no longer needed. Love has its own ‘built-in moral compass’ which discerns intuitively what a true respect for persons will demand in each situation. But this expresses a naive confidence in love’s infallibility. The truth is that love cannot manage on its own without an objective moral standard.”

This isn’t to say that there are never gray areas, or that clarity always comes with ease. But the gospel does compel us to seek out the boundaries of what is good not only as a representation of the gospel, but also as a common grace for the good of a whole society (1 Timothy 2:1-2).

Undefined morality and a lack of cultural sensibility is bad for democracy, bad for humanity and bad for the individual. We live in a time where distinctions and boundaries are seen as outdated and narrow minded. But let us turn to examine again the NFL and see in miniature the frustration which comes to a society unbound by proper regulations.

In the middle of this culture we have an opportunity to win some ground for the common good, but we also have a unique ability to share the gospel-reasoning behind the whole of our political thought. We know what is good because we have seen Jesus. And we know the problem with humanity because we have seen his cross.

So this year enjoy the hopefully increased objectivity in the NFL, and pray that we may influence culture in a similar way.