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A Few Thoughts About Football And The Perception of Time

On Nov. 19, 1966, after four quarters battling a particularly tough Michigan State team in East Lansing, Notre Dame Coach Ara Parseghian made one of the most fateful decisions in clock management in Alabama football history.


With 1:10 left to go in the game and needing about 40 yards for a game-winning field goal, the Fighting Irish stopped fighting. Parseghian chose to ride the clock to a 10-10 final score – choosing to “Tie one for the Gipper” as Sports Illustrated's Dan Jenkins put it.


As you and I well know, that tie kept both teams from suffering a loss on their record and allowed the AP voters to vault them both over the undefeated – and untied – Crimson Tide in the final polls of the season.


The debate over that atrocity has been discussed exhaustively elsewhere, what I’m sort of curious about in this piece is the question of time and the differences in how different cultures perceive it.



I was thinking of the infamous incident last week when considering the contrasts between football, meaning our American game, and soccer, the game everyone else in the world means when you juxtapose the word "foot" and "ball." It seems patently obvious that the sanctity of the clock is undisputed in both games but the manner of its importance is quite different in execution (as opposed to games like baseball and cricket which function without a clock at all).


What struck me was the outrage at what happened in Spartan Stadium that day in 1966 – and across the whole of Alabama fandom later in the year – simply wouldn’t happen in soccer because the role of the clock is so vastly different. In football, the clock is an element of the game to be manipulated. Time is at a premium and you are constantly trying to control it. In soccer, it’s an unalterable part of the universe so worrying about it isn’t going to do any good. 


According to soccer's "laws of the game" a match consists of two 45 minute periods where the clock runs continuously. The referee has the leeway to add time to the clock due to delays caused by injury or substutitions but no representative of either team.


That contrast to football (to run completely wild with this train of thought) may be an excellent way to understand the very different ways that cultures often perceive time as well. Spend any amount of time in South America and you’ll experience the distinction between what Robert Levine, a professor of Psychology at California State University, Fresno, has described as “clock time” vs “event time.”


The former describes a culture that organizes events through a schedule, the latter by how they occur. It is a distinction you come to understand intimately if you try to squeeze in a visit to the department of motor vehicles into your lunch break.

Or, conversely, if you show up on time for a meeting in Latin America and everyone else arrives half an hour later. Punctuality might be gauche in the US but it simply isn’t a viable option elsewhere in the world. It doesn’t take long living here to learn the response “mañana” roughly translates as “Who knows?”


And if you think all this is a minor issue then just wait till you have a South American bartender change the channel from the game you were watching because she thought it was over due to the fact there is a three-point difference and less than a minute  left to play.On the plus side, your conversational Spanish gets a massive and intense workout. On the downside, it is somewhat unlikely you are ready for your first grand mal seizure.


As for this whole tie ballgame business, there is a well known quip attributed to Coach Bear Bryant about how unsatisfactory he found the experience. But it is also worth recalling what Bryant had to say in specific reaction of Parseghian's decision to run out the clock.


"I do not question what other coaches do, because I don't know what their plan might be," he told the Birmingham News. "But everything we do at Alabama is based on winning. If I directed our team to go for a tie late, I believe they would be disappointed in me, I would not be practicing what I preach."