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October 01, 2005

"How can I wear shoes if I don't have feet?"

Rick Reilly, a columnist in Sports Illustrated, has a column (subscription to magazine required) in which he takes a high school football referee to task for telling Bobby Martin, a high school player, that he couldn't play because he wasn't wearing shoes, knee pads, or thigh pads. What's wrong with that? Bobby Martin was born without legs and manages to play by running on his hands. (The photo can be viewed even by non-subscribers. Another photo is in the news story here.)

Let's leave aside the moral questions and take a purely legalistic approach, which is what the ref took -- the rule says all players must wear shoes, knee pads, and thigh pads. My question is: Would the ref have been a "referee-al activist" if he had read the rule with the slightest bit of common sense? I don't think so, and we can see this without getting into the whole Hart-Fuller debate.

I don't know what the rule's language is, but let's make the reasonable assumption that it says something like this: "All players must wear protective equipment, including [list of equipment], shoes, knee pads, and thigh pads." Reading this rule to bar a legless player from playing without shoes is idiotic. It's the kind of interpretation that gives "plain meaning" a bad name.

What this rule is really saying is: "All players must protect . . . their feet with shoes, their knees with knee pads, and their thighs with thigh pads." If you have no feet to protect, how can the rule that you have to wear shoes possibly apply to you? When the ref told Martin he couldn't play without shoes, Martin returned to the field for the third quarter with a pair of shoes tied to his belt. "I'm wearing shoes," he said. A fair point for a literalist ref.

Let's imagine you live in a town with an ordinance that says: "All residents must obtain a license for their dogs." You receive a summons for violating the ordinance and call the town clerk to complain.

You: I don't own a dog.
Clerk: Are you a town resident?
You: Yes, but I don't have a dog.
Clerk: Doesn't matter. You're a town resident. Do you have a dog license?
You: No. I don't have dog.
Clerk: Any town resident who doesn't have a dog license is in violation of the ordinance.
You: I won't be a town resident much longer.

The football referee is a lot like my imaginary town clerk. He's saying to Bobby Martin: You have to wear shoes. Bobby Martin replies: I don't have legs or feet. Referee: Doesn't matter; the rule says you have to wear shoes, or you can't play.

So how do you get from a rule that applies to everyone to a rule that has an exception? The answer is that the rule applies to everyone who meets certain conditions -- you have feet, knees, and thighs -- and one would have assumed that for high school football players everyone would meet the conditions of this rule. The reason you have a dumb, literalist ref is that people aren't used to the idea that there are some football players to whom the conditions of the rule don't apply. (In the dog license case, it isn't surprising in the least that a lot of people don't meet the condition of owning a dog.)

By the way, all's well that ends well. Bobby Martin has been allowed to return to play, without shoes.