Of all the fake slides in all the world

December 5, 2021

In the first quarter of this year’s ACC championship football game, Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett dropped back to pass, saw no one open, then took off to his right and downfield. As several Wake Forest defenders converged on him, he appeared to break down his running gait in preparation to slide feet first, which, under longstanding football rules, is an option available to ball carriers to give themselves up and end the play without getting hit, which would be a penalty on the defense. So, the defenders slowed down to let him slide. He did not slide.

Instead, Pickett kept running, picked up a block, and zoomed into the end zone for the first score of what would end up being a 45-21 Pitt victory. After the game, Wake head coach Dave Clawson — obviously annoyed by the play — suggested the NCAA ought to legislate against fake slides.

It’s fair to believe you can’t take advantage of a rule meant to be a safety measure and pretend to give yourself up, then keep running when defenders slow up so as to not hit you when you slide. Banning the move seems rather straightforward: Allow officials to determine if a player has attempted to gain an advantage by pretending to give himself up, and let them whistle the play dead and penalize the offense for unsportsmanlike conduct if a player does it. It would be a judgment call in which the official is, in part, trying to discern intent, but that already exists in football, with intentional grounding, among other infractions.

I’m not that concerned about the specific implementation of any football rules, but do want to point out this highlights the importance of norms and values in allowing games to proceed without becoming farce. A classic example is basketball without a shot clock. In those leagues, particularly college basketball before implementation in the 1980s, most teams, most of the time, played offense in ways that didn’t seem to require a shot clock. But on occasion, teams would simply hold the ball for minutes at a time, perhaps most notably Dean Smith’s North Carolina teams — the second half of the 1982 ACC championship basketball game featured more than seven consecutive minutes of the Tar Heels standing around in one half of the court without shooting. That was intensely boring, and therefore bad, so the NCAA added the shot clock.

In baseball, the baserunning rules are such that a team can send a runner into right field in an attempt to trick the defense into chasing him and, thus, score a runner from third, but even though the rules allow it, that kind of thing so violates the norms and spirit of baseball rules that I suspect the vast majority of teams would be too embarrassed to try it, even if they believed it would work.

In the end, the NCAA or NFL might try to get ahead of a fake slide epidemic (which I don’t think is coming, either way) and craft a rule to address it, but I tend to think that’s not strictly necessary. At those levels, what will happen is the first time a player does it, he might get away with it and gain more yardage. But subsequently, whether he slides or not, players will be more likely to hit him. Though he may draw penalties on the defense, it’s also not hard to see that eventually his actions would discourage officials from making those calls, on the grounds that his previous actions meant he would need to establish especially early whether or not he was giving himself up.

That is, other players and the officials would likely wield norms as a way of reining it in.

(Photo: "2018 Dr Pepper ACC Football Championship #ACCFCG" by TigerNet.com. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.)