The annual sporting event involving a football that dare not speak its name and a digression into the sportsmanship of wasting time in nonproductive activity

I always wonder about people who are so protective of the name of their event that they don't even allow people to mention it by name. One of the most notorious examples is the organization which runs a major international gathering of athletes which takes place every four years (or every two years if you consider warm-weather sports and cold-weather sports). Another example is that you aren't allowed to refer to the championship game of the major professional American football league by its actual name without permission. You have to use some alternate phrasing like the big game. I propose that all media organizations which cover these types of events accept the event organizers' wishes and refuse to call it by its name. Or even simply refuse to cover it until they relax their rules.

The alternate name the big game is itself confusing, since there are many things that go by that name. Even within the realm of American football, the phrase big game can also refer to the annual match between Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley, whose final play in 1982 was particularly memorable.

For those not familiar with the timekeeping rules of American football (which includes the Stanford band, it seems): American football is not a continuous-play game. The game is broken up into relatively short units known as plays. Typically, a whistle is blown to indicate that a play has ended. Between plays are much longer units of time called standing around doing nothing. If time runs out while a play is in progress, the play is allowed to run to completion, and the results of the play are valid. An analogue in the sport of basketball is the case where time runs out while the ball is in flight. The ball's trajectory is permitted to run to completion, and if it goes into the basket, the points count.

The amount of standing around doing nothing is determined by the offensive team. Some teams employ a strategy known as not standing around doing nothing quite so much (technically known as the no-huddle offense), the goal of which is to deprive the defense of time to prepare for the next play.

Some sports such as soccer (known to most of the world as the one true football accept no substitutes) have a penalty of the form not making an honest effort to advance the ball which is assessed if a team appears to be wasting time in nonproductive activity. One thing I find odd about American football is that wasting time in nonproductive activity is not only permitted by the rules, it is actively pursued as a tactic. You are allowed to waste up to 40 seconds of time (subject to other adjustments) before incurring a delay of game penalty, which more accurately should be named excessive delay of game. The result of this formalization of the concept of wasting time is that the amount of time which elapses between plays tends to be approximately 39.5 seconds. This is actually handy if you are watching a game that you previously recorded: When you hear the whistle which ends a play, you can hit the skip ahead 30 seconds button and skip over nearly all of the standing around doing nothing.

The fact that maximum time wastage is completely normal and expected leads to the odd phenomenon of teams walking off the field before the game has ended: If the remaining time is less than 40 seconds and the team with possession of the ball is winning, then it assumed that the winning team will merely stand around doing nothing until time runs out. As a result, everybody just leaves immediately instead of standing around doing nothing waiting for the end-of-game whistle. (Indeed, if a team in this situation actually tries to play the game, it will probably be criticized for attempting to run up the score.)

Comments (34)
  1. Mark Trade says:

    The odder, given that the name of the big game was derived from a well-known toy. Yet I suppose that if you tried to market Super Bells, Boils (crabs, say), Bales, or Brawls, the league would be after you.

  2. Sockatume says:

    One of the oddest experiences of my nonsporting, non-American life was firing up a demo of a Madden football game for the first (and last) time. I hadn't previously realised that one of America's most popular red-blooded pass-times was a turn-based strategy game.

  3. rich says:

    I don't see how anybody with an IQ in 3 figures could enjoy American football. Three hours long games. Dancers. Stupid inflatable characters like at Disney. And about 10 minutes of actual playing. Man has probably devised more boring and pointless pastimes than this, but it has to be up there in the top 10.

  4. Jacob says:

    Actually, in football, quite a lot of the amount of standing around doing nothing is determined by the TV broadcaster and their advertisers.  When it's time for a commercial break, a man from the TV company will walk out onto the field and stop the game until commercials are done.  This slows the game down more than the offense team's huddles do…

  5. Mormegil says:

    Ummm… no. Soccer is one of the few team sports played here in Europe which does not have a rule forcing you to attack (or advance the ball or anything like that) while the ball is in play. The goalkeeper must not hold the ball in hands more than six seconds, and that’s about it. You can just stand with a ball lying in front of you and wait for the opponent to try and take it (when your team is ahead). Or you could pass the ball among standing players, waiting for the time to run out (when the current score suits both teams perfectly).

    The only time-wasting sanctions are for wasting the time while the ball is out of play (like slowly walking out of the pitch after being substituted, prolonged goal celebrations, etc.).

  6. J Miller says:

    It's no worse than any show on Discovery – only 5 minutes of actual content in a one hour show, but before each commercial you get a 2 minute preview of what's going to happen after the commercial, followed by a 2 minute commercial, followed by 2 minutes of recap from before the commercial, then a minute of content, and repeat.

  7. Nice article, Raymond, good writing. Looks like I'm in good company in not giving a damn about football. ;My tradition for the day of the annual sporting event that must not be mentioned by name is to go to Ikea and enjoy the almost complete emptiness of the store.

    [I appreciate the game but don't pay attention to particular teams. -Raymond]
  8. Rybo says:

    I'll posit that the point of the standing-around-doing-nothing segments are to permit the players to catch a breather in between plays (in addition to Jacob's observation).  If there was no pause in action, half of the players on the field would keel over in the first 15 minutes.  Of course that's an easy one to fix — just swap out players every few plays.  I still like it better than soccer, though, where you can watch an entire 90 (or is it 120?) minute game end in a 0-0 draw, or basketball, wherein you needn't bother watching anything but the last 10 minutes in most games — both teams just score back and forth until the last team to get the ball before game end scores and wins.  

  9. AsmGuru62 says:

    Now I understand why Snake Plissken wasn't shot!

  10. John says:

    The only thing that bothers me about soccer is the inaccurate time keeping.  Most American time-based sports have strict timekeeping regulations, but in soccer the referee just adds on whatever stoppage time he deems appropriate.  It's kind of anticlimactic when people are passing the ball around and the referee just throws his hands up and the match is over.

  11. RCG says:

    There's a penalty in soccer for prolonged goal celebrations?  Considering the only thing I (and most Americans I suppose) know about soccer is "GOO…OOAL!!111" that's pretty funny.

  12. Mason Wheeler says:

    Regarding the other Event That Must Not Be Named, (the one with the five rings to rule them all,) does anyone even care anymore? They lost all their credibility a few years back when they held their games, which are purportedly supposed to symbolize the dignity of mankind and the nobility of the human spirit, in China.

  13. the phrase big game can also refer to the annual match between Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley

    To be a little more generic: in American college football, the phrase "big game" means "the game between the two local NCAA division 1 teams." So if you live near Stanford / UC Berkeley, your statement is correct; but if you live in Los Angeles, "big game" refers to the USC / UCLA game; or if you live in Washington, "big game" refers to the UW / Washington State game (etc.)

  14. Tyler Reddun says:

    @rich well the first step is not to be elitist snob and dismiss other peoples enjoyment of something that you refuse to understand. After that it becomes a matter of applying the same decision making that you do with everything else.

  15. Julian says:

    The restrictions imposed by the event with the rings are excessive and shouldn't be tolerated in any free country.

    Apparently businesses in the UK that helped construct things to do with the event weren't even allowed to mention this fact in bids to other potential customers in other countries until the rules were relaxed following much protest.

  16. Mason Wheeler says:

    @Julian: Huh.  Sounds like they learned a thing or two from all that time they spent doing business with the Chinese government. :P

  17. John says:

    @Maurits:  I consider "big game" to be more akin to a rivalry game.  Granted many of these are between physically close schools, but there are some good distance rivalries as well (the most obvious being USC and Notre Dame).

  18. Gabe says:

    One can hardly mention wasting time in sporting events without talking about baseball. This is a game where the ball is usually in play for less than a second at a time, the games last for hours, and there is no clock — yet you can call a "time out"!

    If American football is a game for turn-based strategy geeks, baseball is a game for statistics geeks (or actuaries).

  19. pete.d says:

    I really enjoyed the narrative describing game-delay rules in American-rules football. Thanks for that.

    However, as far as the "don't allow mention by name" part, I am nearly certain that it is impossible for any organization, even the ones in charge of the two-/four-year-interval meet as well as the annual American-rules football championship, to literally prohibit anyone else from mentioning the actual name of those events. Trademark rules (which is what that would fall under) apply only to scenarios where the name is being applied to a similar, competing entity (company, product, etc.).

    Apple, Kleenex, Ford, etc. are all trademarks, but the owners of those trademarks have no standing to prohibit anyone from using those names simply to discuss (or report on) them. Nor the owners of the sporting event names.

    Granted, the IOC and NFL are notoriously hyper-sensitive about their trademarks, asserting protection in the most tenuous of situations. But surely even they are not so absurdly uninformed as to think they could prohibit the use of their trademarks in media reporting _about_ the events so-named.

    [The five-rings organization is particularly hated out here because they like to sue anybody who uses a word that we've been using before their organization even existed. -Raymond]
  20. pete.d says:

    "The five-rings organization is particularly hated out here…"

    Sure. I remember when they harassed the local sporting goods chain out of existence. Man, that made me so mad.

    But at least that was a potentially valid trademark dispute, with one business's name containing a related trademark of another business, even if I vehemently disagreed with the plaintiff's position on it. I'm not aware of any successful attempt to require permission simply to mention the event names in the media.

  21. A more extreme use of the "excessive delay of game" tactic in American football which I have seen used, and which led directly to the Seahawks' defeat in their most recent playoff game:

    The game is almost over (only a few seconds remain on the clock.)

    Team A has possession of the ball and is close enough to Team B's end zone that a field goal attempt is the logical play. At this point Team A's kicker is under a fair amount of emotional pressure, since he will be credited or blamed with the win or loss of the game.

    The teams line up to make the field goal.

    At this point, Team B calls a time out for the sole purpose of extending the psychological pressure on Team A's kicker.

    (This is called "icing the kicker.")

    In the Seahawks game, the timeout was called, but then Team A went ahead and kicked the field goal anyway… and *missed*… but because the timeout was called, the play didn't count and they got to try again.

    The kicker made it the second time.

  22. Matt says:


    It's even worse than that. They even insist that countries hosting the event change the law (…/olympics-2012-branding-police-sponsors) to protect their brand.

    Just out of interest – why can't you name the "big game" organisation and claim that the first amendment protects your right to do so?

  23. Matt says:

    Also, the five ringed organisation has tried to make it illegal to even use the date:

    As well as introducing an additional layer of protection around the word "Olympics", the five-rings symbol and the Games' mottoes, the major change of the legislation is to outlaw unauthorised "association". This bars non-sponsors from employing images or wording that might suggest too close a link with the Games. Expressions likely to be considered a breach of the rules would include any two of the following list: "Games, Two Thousand and Twelve, 2012, Twenty-Twelve".

    Using one of those words with London, medals, sponsors, summer, gold, silver or bronze is another likely breach. The two-word rule is not fixed, however: an event called the "Great Exhibition 2012" was threatened with legal action last year under the Act over its use of "2012" (Locog later withdrew its objection).

  24. cheong00 says:

    I really think it's lame to need to use names like "You-know-what" to replace the name of a game when your company is not one of their sponsors.

  25. steg says:

    Having been on the losing side of "running up the score" in various sports I wish it was viewed as bad sportsmanship outside the USA (particularly in Under 14s field hockey in Canberra, Australia in about 1982. Just saying).

  26. JM says:

    I refuse to believe it's a coincidence that naming taboos are traditionally associated with dark villains. The Prince of Lies, You-Know-Who, He Who Must Not Be Named, the Five Rings Organization, whatever you do don't call them by their true names or they might appear and unleash the forces of darkness on you. Thankfully, you are still allowed to call those by their true names at least — lawyers.

  27. John says:

    The Super Bowl should be an Olympic event.  Come at me, bro.

  28. @Maurits

    That is not really true.  While people obviously refer to any important matchup as "the big game", that is not used as a name for the game in the way it is for Cal-Stanford.  The UW-WSU game is called the Apple Cup.  The USC-UCLA game is occasionally referred to as the Battle for LA or Crosstown Battle, but is usually just called the USC-UCLA game.  Other games that have names include Florida-Georgia, "The world's largest outdoor cocktail party" (commonly shortened to The cocktail party"); Harvard-Yale, "The Game"; Georgia-Georgia Tech "Clean Old-fashioned hat"; Utah-BYU, "The Holy War"; etc.

  29. Neil says:

    At least in print, Superb Owl works well for me.

  30. @Mason Wheeler

    They lost all their credibility a few years back when they held their games, which are purportedly supposed to symbolize the dignity of mankind and the nobility of the human spirit, in China.

    Surely they would have lost all credibility in 1936 then?

  31. Scott H. says:

    You know, I don't really care that much about football, but I went to a sup…er.. Major Sporting Event Party yesterday and hung out with friends, had some great food and drinks, and had a generally good time. The game was on and it was at least some decent entertainment. It's certainly no worse than many other sources of entertainment. No reason to go hating on it.

    (I admit, though, I didn't even know who was playing in the game until yesterday. That's how little attention I generally pay to sports)

  32. Jayson K says:

    No one has mentioned the biggest rivalry in all of American sports, from my homestate of North Carolina: Duke/Carolina, which ironically doesn't have a nickname that I know of.

  33. BAF says:

    You think American football is the most boring sport? You must have never watched baseball then.

  34. Neil (SM) says:

    "Did you happen to catch the professional football contest on television last night?  The Giants of New York took on the Packers of Green Bay. And in the end, the Giants triumphed by kicking an oblong ball made of pigskin through a big 'H.' It was a most ripping victory. "

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