The Best Part About a Fumble
It happens without fail, no matter what level of football you’re watching. It is an unspoken tradition, and it is inevitable. As long as there’s a pileup fighting over possession of a fumble, you will see it every single time.
Like clockwork, at least one player (and often several) will temporarily assume the role of an official, authoritatively pointing their finger towards their team’s end zone with the omniscience of a higher power, signaling that their team has recovered the ball.
It’s a silly, meaningless gesture that lasts for no longer than a few seconds, and I love it.
There are so many amazing aspects to the finger point, not the least of which is the paradoxical nature of the activity. If a loose ball is cleanly scooped up by either team, players will not always point. After all, there is no need for bold hand motions to reinforce what is obvious. The finger point is only guaranteed when it is not immediately clear who the ball belongs to — as if, when the game is suspended in a state of limbo, a secret power is activated which allows those not fighting over the almighty spheroid to have a say in determining whose arms it ultimately rests in.
Situations like these offer plenty of opportunity for unintentional comedy, such as the all-too-common scenario when members of both teams confidently point in opposing directions, creating a deadlock that manages to make both parties look ridiculous.
Then, there are occasions when one player feigns clairvoyance and points despite being nowhere near the actual pile and not having seen any of the action that transpired leading to the scuffle. It’s like when someone claims to know how the murder was carried out in Clue on the game’s first turn.
In the image at the top of this article, Buccaneers cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting sees nine players standing around an additional group of four players wrestling for the football, and decides that he is the person most qualified to declare that the Bucs recovered the ball. However, as it turns out, that wasn’t the case, just as it was never Col. Mustard in the study with the lead pipe.
Every now and again, a player will point in the wrong direction, inadvertently claiming that the ball belongs to the other team. These are special treats. But most of the time, even when pointing the right way, the sheer assuredness of the motioning is more than enough entertainment.
Surely, pointers must be aware that their displays have no actual impact. An official has never been swayed by a player’s enormously biased opinion on which team should have possession of the ball. However, it is interesting, because appealing to referees really is part of the strategy in many sports.
Baseball and softball catchers practice framing pitches to get more strikes called. Basketball and soccer players try to sell fouls. It even happens in football, where players often try to manipulate where the ball is spotted to gain extra yards and first downs.
(Side note: on close third and fourth-down plays, there are usually players who either claim a first down or a defensive stop, and there’s probably a lot of crossover between them and our fumble pointers).
However, on fumbles, particularly considering that all turnovers are automatically reviewed, the list of things that matter is pretty short:
- Did a fumble occur before the play was dead?
- If so, who recovered the ball?
Take particular notice of how Player X’s thoughts on the play are nowhere to be found on that list.
So, if the finger point is ultimately meaningless, why are players always doing it? I think the answer is beautifully simple: because it’s fun. Big plays are exciting, and when the outcome of a fumble is uncertain, even players turn into fans, doing all they can to support their team and speak (or point) their desires into existence. It’s no different from us at home.
Sometimes, it’s the little things that provide the most joy. Keep doing your thing, finger-pointing guy. 50% of the time, you’re right every time.
Connor Groel is a graduate student at Northwestern’s Medill School who holds a Bachelor’s degree in sport management from the University of Texas at Austin. He is the editor of the Top Level Sports publication on Medium and host of the Slept On Sports podcast. You can follow Connor on Medium, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, check out his book, and view his archives at toplevelsports.net.