Taking the Penalty

Game and sport illuminate life. Where the offense seeks to penetrate a sacred space – score a goal, a basket, a touchdown – we playfully replicate sexual and power dynamics of human and political relationships.

“Let the Great Axe Fall” emphasizes a structural defect in some games and life itself.  A player or team violates the rules, and theoretically gets punished, e.g. being “penalized” five yards for delay of game. But that ‘punishment’ may actually improve its kicking angle for a field goal.  I call that “taking the penalty.”

In “Competition Committee Discusses Clock Management”, yesterday’s New York Times highlights yet another example from the Giants’ recent Superbowl victory.   In a crucial moment when too much time left on the clock threatened the eventual victors, the Giants were “punished” for too many men on the field, while the clock continued to run to their advantage.  “The Giants didn’t do it intentionally . . . but the play revealed to a wide audience that teams have the option of trading a penalty for a potentially bigger benefit of draining seconds at the end of a game” Judy Battista observes.

Too true.  Internationally, we see nations like North Korea get “penalized” for violating agreements by increased aid.  Domestically, prison life offers us perhaps the clearest and most perverse example of taking the penalty.

Robert Pitts beat to death his innocent burglary victim so that he could land in prison with good food and endless hours at the pool table which far and away beat his tough life, homeless on the street.  “Prison preserves us”, a condemned killer later released from death row observed to me in Illinois.  Prison extends prisoners life expectancy, while it can increase the quality.

Recently, a condemned and confessed serial killer in North Carolina made national headlines by revealing to the local newspaper that life on death row was replete with recreation, good food and top of the line medical care, the hardworking innocent poor could only dream of.  Most of us believe that the punishment should fit the crime, whether in sport, international relations, or criminal justice.

Too often, reality mocks that faith, and the perversity of “punishment” escapes correction.  Apparently the NFL, aware of their problem, prepares to do something about it.  Let’s hope an upcoming ABC Nightline piece, scheduled to air on March 9th, featuring footage from my prison travels, helps move the American people to demand our own more just “clock management”.