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Sportsmanship: What's Expected In Football


And now it's time for sports.


WERTHEIMER: An incident at the end of last week's NFL match-up between the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers has created a fuss about the unwritten rules of football.

It got the attention of NPR's Mike Pesca, too. He joins us this week from member station KCRW in Santa Monica, California. Mike, hi.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hi. I think you're right, fuss, not kerfuffle.

WERTHEIMER: So, how did the Tampa Bay's rush of the Giants' quarterback, Eli Manning, violate the unwritten rules of the game?

PESCA: Well, football teams, to run out the clock when they have a lead do something called taking a knee. The ball snapped to the quarterback and he kneels down, and then the seconds run off the clock. Usually the defense acquiesces to this, but Tampa Bay did not. They ran in, tried to strip the ball from Eli Manning. And this got the Giants' coach, Tom Coughlin, very hot under the collar. And when he gets hot, his face gets red.

He was yelling at Greg Schiano, the coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Schiano said, hey, it's not against the rules. I'm trying to play as hard as I can.

WERTHEIMER: Is that right? Is it not against the rule?

PESCA: Not only is it not against the rules, Greg Schiano was actually backed up by a lot of NFL veterans - the former legendary coach of the New York Giants, Bill Parcells, even said I think Tampa Bay was playing hard, and that's fine. Other coaches, other commentators, said I've never seen it done but many of them said it's a fine message to be sending your team and it probably won't lead to injury.

WERTHEIMER: Wouldn't that be the issue or one of the issues? You're not supposed to beat up on other people's quarterbacks, right, except under certain circumstances?

PESCA: Right. And this wasn't some sort of vicious assault. They just treated it as if it were a regular play. And, you know, the whole reason that this even exists, this taking the knee, is because of something that happened to the Giants, something that's called the Miracle in the Meadowlands, where the Giants were trying to salt away a lead in 1970s against the Philadelphia Eagles. And instead of taking a knee, they muffed a handoff, 'cause back then, taking a knee, that was seen as poor sportsmanship. Soon, after this muffed handoff that resulted in a Philadelphia touchdown, teams all began taking the knee. So, there was this shifting definition of sportsmanship. And I think if you look at the history, that's more evidence that's on Tampa Bay's side that it wasn't always dust in the NFL.

WERTHEIMER: What about the unwritten rules about referees and how they aren't being applied to replacement referees?

PESCA: Yeah. We've seen coaches berating replacement referees on the sidelines, and the NFL intervened and said, no, you must comport yourself with more control or we'll be throwing flags on coaches. And what's really happened is an upending of the social order in a way. Coaches with regular referees defer because they know that referees, if they don't like you will perhaps punish your team. It's only logical in human nature. But I also think they had a respect for the regular referees. Regular referees are often more tenured than coaches. And I also think that they feel that they can intimidate the replacement referees. So, here's an instance where the NFL had an unwritten rule - how far do you go in berating a referee - a rule that worked out because coaches in general wouldn't go over the line, and here the NFL actually have to rewrite the line and say, be nice to our replacement referees.

WERTHEIMER: Got a curveball for us?

PESCA: I do. You know, the Houston Astros are going to end the season pretty poorly. They'll be, I think, the third losingest team within the last 50 years. When it's all over, Houston will have lost 110 games. During their horrible year this year, they had a 4-34 stretch. The only team that we could find that was as bad for a 38-game stretch was the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, which makes me happy, because any time you get a chance to talk about the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, you should. The owners of the Spiders had another business interest that conflicted with owning the Spiders. This is not unusual in baseball. You know, the owner of the Red Sox was trying to mount "No, No, Nanette." That's why he sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees. However, the other business interest that the Spiders' owners had was they also owned the St. Louis baseball team. So, they took all of their good players on the Spiders - guys like Cy Young and Pete McBride and Cowboy Jones and Cupid Childs and shipped them to St. Louis. And the Spiders were the worst team in baseball history. No team will ever be as bad. In fact, their record of 9-33 at home will never be surpassed, or whatever the negative version of surpassed is, because they only played 42 games at home because teams wouldn't even come into Cleveland to play them. So, let's all remember those horrible and wonderful Cleveland Spiders.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Mike Pesca speaking with us from member station KCRW in Santa Monica, California, where they do play football, right?

PESCA: Yeah, not professional football, but, yeah, lots of other kinds.

WERTHEIMER: Thank you very much, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome.


WERTHEIMER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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