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The National Football League playoffs are now under way. This means that on any given Sunday (or Saturday), you’re likely to find me sprawled in front of my television set, with one eye on a football game and the other on a law review article about the legal issues in competitive energy markets. I confess to finding the subject daunting. No, not the legal issues � but the football. The rules of football are just too complicated. The game of football boils down to tackling, mangling, and desperate attempts to escape the same. But like a running back smothered by tacklers, the essence of the game is weighed down by tedious rules. NFL rules assess harsh penalties that nullify the most spectacular plays, whether 95-yard kick returns or 80-yard pass plays, all because of trivial infractions detected only by an elite corps of officials. An offensive lineman flinches before the snap: penalty. Too many players move around before the ball is snapped: penalty. Players fail to pause one second after a shift or huddle: penalty. A player makes an invalid fair-catch signal: penalty. A player engages in leaping: penalty. And then there’s the crackback penalty. What’s a crackback? The NFL.com Digest of Rules states that “eligible receivers who take or move to a position more than two yards outside the tackle may not block an opponent below the waist if they then move back inside to block.” Of course! There’s a penalty on defensive players for roughing the kicker. But there’s also a penalty for a punter, place-kicker or holder who simulates being roughed by a defensive player. Perhaps the NFL will adopt a penalty for a defensive player who unfairly alleges that a kicker simulated being roughed by the defensive player. Penalties also prevent what should be one of the cleverest plays in football, intentional grounding by the quarterback to avoid losing yardage and being himself intentionally grounded by a fast-approaching member of the defense. But there’s an exception: intentional grounding will not be called when a passer, while out of the pocket and facing an imminent loss of yardage, throws a pass that travels at least to the line of scrimmage, even if no offensive player has a chance to catch the ball. So what’s the policy here? Intentional grounding is forbidden unless the quarterback is running for his life? Even the coin toss can lead to penalties. If a captain doesn’t appear for a coin toss, there’s a 15-yard penalty. And the rules require that the coin toss take place within three minutes of kickoff. Who would be assessed a penalty if the coin toss took place four minutes within kickoff? Would the referee throw a flag and order himself to move 15 yards back? Teams have long used tactics whose sole purpose was to draw a penalty. A classic was the long count on fourth and short. The quarterback stood there for an eternity barking like a trained seal, trying to induce a mammoth defensive lineman to prematurely bolt across the line. And is there anything more dismal than when a poor offensive lineman waiting for the snap shifts his weight by a fraction, and his opponents all burst up and point to him, like goody-goody schoolchildren tattling to the teacher about who was talking in class? In comparison, it makes the soccer prima donnas who solicit penalty kicks by diving onto the grass and faking screams of agony look quite dignified. Most fans have no idea when a rule was violated. But flags fly from any of the seven officials (yes, seven � there are more officials in football than players in basketball). The officials huddle, perhaps out of huddle envy toward the offense, with an exchange something akin to the following: “What happened?” “I dunno.” “You threw the flag!” “Oh. Maybe a crackback?” “Crackback it is!” Even the players are baffled by the rules of the game they play professionally. Just ask the Oakland Raiders players who missed out on going to the Super Bowl a few years ago because of the mysterious “tuck rule” that swept down and saved the New England Patriots. Does every football player, let alone fan, know that offensive substitutes who remain in the game must move onto the field as far as the inside of the field numerals before moving to a wide position? Or that a T-formation quarterback is not eligible to receive a forward pass during a play from scrimmage, unless the pass is previously touched by an eligible receiver? Or that there’s such a thing as a fair-catch kick? And has anybody mastered the turgid body of law governing safeties? The key concept: impetus. Finally, if a team celebrates heartily after navigating the maze of penalties to score a touchdown, it can still be penalized for too much celebrating after a touchdown. Gotcha! Are all these inscrutable rules necessary? Every year the NFL fine-tunes its regulatory regime, whether adjusting pass interference rules or prohibiting players from removing their helmets while on the field. Recent rule changes include allowing wide receivers to wear numbers in the teens even if numbers in the eighties are available, and declaring that a punt or missed field goal untouched by the receiving team is a dead ball once it reaches the end zone. But this is just tweaking: helping the offense, helping the defense, outlawing anything spontaneous, probably the result of closed-door lobbying by nefarious special interests. My proposal: deregulation. The concept makes sense � freeing an industry from burdensome rules so that its players can dedicate themselves to vigorous competition that benefits themselves and the public. It worked for trucking and telecomm. Why not try it for football? Let’s gut 90 percent of the rule book and remove the impediments to true competition. Forget the tax code � simplify football first. Freedom-loving Americans should not tolerate a national sport being so riddled with rules and regulations. Let shine forth the true game of football in all its manly and brutal glory! So let’s lobby the NFL to deregulate the game, perhaps starting with the following modest proposals: •�Movement before the snap is allowed, so long as the player doesn’t cross into the neutral zone. •�Any number of players can be in motion. Wouldn’t it be fun to see everyone but the center and the quarterback madly running back and forth along the line? •�Anybody can be a receiver or runner with the ball. The present rule on eligible receivers is discriminatory, even anti-American. Why should only some players get the glory of catching and running with the ball? •�Holding is allowed. This wouldn’t affect the balance between the offense and defense, since holding by the offensive line and holding by defensive backs would offset each other. •�Punting is eliminated. It’s the ultimate give-up play, without any parallel in other sports. Play all four downs. •�Drop the coin toss, too, and replace it with arm-wrestling by the middle linebackers. •�And, of course, crackbacks are allowed. Indeed, they would be encouraged. Unfortunately, the likelihood of such deregulation is probably small � yet it may be more likely than finding a fan sprawled on a couch somewhere who understands the present rules. Gunnar Birgisson is an associate at D.C.’s Bracewell & Patterson.

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