STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The Super Bowl is just weekends away - four of them. Commentator Mike Pesca is already anxious - not about which team will make the Super Bowl or which team will win but the referees will rule.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: To me, the word catch means the act of grasping and holding a projectile, but the NFL has expanded the definition. According to the official rulebook, if a player is thought to have caught the ball, he, quote, "must maintain control of the ball until after his initial contact with the ground. And if the ball touches the ground before he regains control, it is not a catch." Jargony definitions of a simple act are not actually the problem here. The problem is this definition leaves open the possibility that a catch - regarded as a catch since the pioneer and coach Newt Rockne conceived of the forward pass - could actually become an un-catch (ph) when subjected to withering scrutiny.
In today's NFL, we have the technology. We can scrutinize every play. We can observe, dissect, replay and debate every squirt and wiggle of the spheroid in the receiver's hands. And what should be the most glorious moments of a football game are second-guessed before they're even first experienced. Here's Tony Romo, CBS announcer, analyzing the only touchdown of last weekend's playoff game between Jacksonville and Buffalo.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JIM NANTZ: He's got his man for the touchdown.
TONY ROMO: It was good defense, and it was a great throw. I got to make sure he caught this, though. That ball looked like it may have moved in his hands.
PESCA: It didn't move. It was a touchdown, and it was met by doubt when it should have been met by rapture. It's not just catches, all plays in a sport that should be dictated by sinew and fast-twitch muscles are now mere excuses for cautious forensic videography. Here is Sean McDonough's call on ESPN in what should have been the most interesting play of the game between the Titans and Chiefs.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SEAN MCDONOUGH: It deflects back to him for a touchdown for the moment. But was he across the line of scrimmage?
PESCA: He wasn't. That call should have gone - Mariota, pass deflected. He caught it. Mariota caught it himself, of all the crazy backwards inverted abaft plays. But no, instead of celebrating, we had to dwell on it. We had to stew in our own doubt. Baseball announcer Jack Buck, in one of the most famous home run calls ever, yelled, I don't believe what I just saw. Now, announcers sheepishly dampen the marvel. Now, we don't believe what we just saw. And this could be an explanation for the NFL's modest decline in popularity, along with politics and head trauma.
We no longer know what we've just seen. We have to stop and debate what was once evident. We're not an audience. We're land surveyors or jewelers squinting through a loop. As with so many aspects of life, technology has promised clarity, but, in fact, it has muddied our experience. Referees were once the gatekeepers. They were sometimes wrong, but their word was final. And now that these arbiters have given way to ambiguity, we are finding ourselves unpleasantly awash in uncertainty.
INSKEEP: I don't believe what I just heard. Mike Pesca, the author of the forthcoming book "Upon Further Review: The Great What-Ifs In Sports History' and also the host of the Slate podcast "The Gist." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.