By Eli Nachmany and Jon Hartley
Like millions of other football fans in America, we were on the edges of our seats for most of Sunday’s Week 18 action in the National Football League, which featured several scenarios by which on-the-bubble teams could secure the last few spots in the NFL playoffs.
Perhaps the most fascinating scenario was as follows: Going into Week 18, the Pittsburgh Steelers could make it into the playoffs if (1) they won their game, (2) the Jacksonville Jaguars beat the Indianapolis Colts, and (3) the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders did not tie.
After the first and—miraculously—the second results came to pass, all eyes were on Sunday Night Football, where one of the Raiders and Chargers simply needed to win. Just one problem: There were two, not one, playoff spots up for grabs, and if the Raiders and Chargers tied in their game, they would both make the playoffs to the Steelers’ exclusion. Meanwhile, if one team won, the team on the other sideline would go home. We argue this is a perverse scenario, and the NFL should adopt postseason overtime rules for games in which a tie by the two teams playing would put both teams into the playoffs and leave a third team out.
The Wall Street Journal described the situation as a “prisoner’s dilemma.” Game theory suggests that the most rational approach would have been for both teams to just kneel out the clock for the entire 60 minutes, take the tie, and both head to the playoffs. But with the season on the line for both squads, that is an awful lot of trust to put in the other team.
Moreover, as the WSJ piece suggested, it is possible that if the two teams swapped kneeldowns for 60 minutes, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell “might decide that such a sham violates the league’s competitive principles and force both teams a forfeit.” But this is an extreme example—what if the two teams played a competitive-looking game and, at the end, one team passed on taking the win? A recent piece in Slate discussed the possible fallout.
It almost happened. The game went to overtime, and the score was tied with just minutes left. The Raiders moved the ball down the field, drained the clock to a mere three seconds, and as the cameras panned to Raiders fans in the stands holding up signs that said “Take the Tie,” kicked a last-second field goal to win instead of letting the time run out.
As bad as we would have felt for the Steelers if the teams tied, we felt awkward for the Chargers, who watched the Raiders (literally) kick them out of the playoffs when a tie would have kept both teams alive. Had the two tied, Steelers Nation undoubtedly would have called for the NFL to investigate whether the teams had colluded to fix the game. This charge would not only be difficult to substantiate (and cast a cloud of doubt over the playoffs), but also ignore that (1) a tie is a possible (if unlikely), legitimate outcome for an NFL game and (2) it would have been hard to fault the Raiders for letting the clock run out instead of risking a blocked kick or a field-goal-returned-for-a-touchdown when their playoff spot was already locked up.
The NFL should change its rules to ensure that this sort of situation—however rare—does not happen again. At best, the teams avoided the appearance of impropriety but arguably acted irrationally. At worst, we could have seen an integrity-of-the-game uproar had the teams tied.
While NFL teams can legally tie in the regular season, NFL postseason overtime rules prohibit ties. For a situation like last night’s, the NFL could adopt postseason overtime rules to ensure that the game does not end in a tie. There is a powerful argument against this idea: It would have required the Raiders or Chargers to accumulate a better record than the Steelers needed to make the playoffs—an unfair disadvantage.
The best response is twofold. First, we cannot know ahead of time which team the amended rule would advantage—an important question when making a change. This would be different if, say, the argument were to change matchups so that two teams vying for a division title had to play one another (instead of one team playing a duly scheduled hapless opponent). And ties are so rare that the difference between having the ability to tie and get into the playoffs and the necessity of winning to get into the playoffs is negligible at best.
Second, the integrity-of-the-game issue is one of the most sensitive issues with which a league can deal. It is why commissioners come down so hard on players accused of betting on games. Perhaps the first responsibility of the league is to ensure that the on-field product is legitimate. Weighed against this concern, amending the rules to prohibit a tie is a reasonable approach to avoid another situation like the one on Sunday night.
In the end, the Raiders and Steelers moved on, while the Chargers went home. But the next time this kind of situation comes up, the NFL should take the possibility of a tie off the table.
Eli Nachmany is a third-year law student at Harvard Law School, where he serves as the Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law.
Jon Hartley, a doctoral student in economics at Stanford, has worked for the Dallas Cowboys.
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