The Strange Similarity Between Scottish Verdicts And NFL Challenges

As an author who tends to enjoy odd and curious connections between seemingly contrary phenomena [1], sometimes one recognizing similar patterns in widely different fields and then explores ways of understanding the reasons behind them. Today, let us examine the similarity between the language of NFL challenges (as well as college football challenges) and Scottish verdicts, and what insight both of them present to the field of logic, specifically as it relates to the the relationship between the trilemma and the dilemma. As it will be seen, the similarity between Scottish Verdicts and NFL challenges relates to a trinary reality that forces itself into our usually binary conception of reality, which is worth exploring.

First, let us review the trilemma of the Scottish verdict. A Scottish court (and this is rare, if not unique) contains three verdicts: guilty, not guilty, and not proven. In practice, the “not proven” verdict is commonly thought to mean “don’t do it again” to someone who is set free on a technicality without being innocent. While a verdict of not guilty in the Scottish system implies innocence, a verdict of not proven provides a rebuke to the prosecution for failing to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt while also indicating that there was doubt concerning the innocence of the accused. Given our own justice system and its lack of legitimacy, as well as the tension between letting the guilty walk free without any rebuke or condoning prosecutorial misconduct, it would appear as if this feature of the Scottish justice system would be a wise one to add to allow jurors another option to express their determination of the facts at hand in a given case. Anything that would reduce tension and grant more legitimacy to our justice system would be a good thing at this point.

Of course, the Scottish verdicts can be useful in occasions outside of the courtroom, as a way of providing intermediate ground between two dogmatic positions. For example, some years ago I once attended a concert in the Tampa Bay area with two co-headliners (Jewel and Rob Thomas) and an opening act (Joss Stone). Each of the artists, coincidentally enough, fit one of the three Scottish verdicts, as I noted at the time on my livejournal blog. First, Joss Stone came and sang four songs, enough to greatly intrigue me but not enough to prove she had great talent (as future performances of hers that I saw on television did provide). Verdict: not proven. Then Jewel came and butchered her way through her repertoire after not having gone on four for about five years, not even singing my two favorite songs of hers (“Standing Still” and “Stand”). Shortly afterward she became a country singer. Verdict: guilty of crimes against music. Then, Rob Thomas came on and gave his competent job, which was great but very familiar as I had already heard him only a few months before at a different venue in Tampa. Verdict: not guilty of price gouging. In this particular case, the Scottish verdicts were useful in providing a more nuanced opinion than a simple good/bad or up/down binary measurement would have provided. And as everyone should know, more nuance is something I generally enjoy.

There is a similar nuance in the way that NFL officials (as well as college football officials) deal with coach’s challenges. When a controversial decision is made and a coach throws the red challenge flag, the head official then goes under a replay booth to see different camera angles of the play in question in order to seek to determine what happened with the aid of available technology. There are three different possibilities as to his decision, leading to two outcomes. Either the call is overturned (as the challenging coach hopes), it is confirmed, or it stands. These three verdicts directly correspond to the Scottish verdicts. An overturn is a conviction of error on the part of the officials–where the evidence proves a different situation than what the referee originally judged. A confirmation is proof that the referee made the right call and is innocent of the specific charge of incompetence inherent in the challenge. When the call stands, it means that there is no irrefutable evidence necessary to overturn the initial decision of the referee, but that the evidence did not confirm his call either. In this case, the referee gets off on a technicality because the contrary interpretation was not proven either. A sports fan who is attentive to nuance can recognize the level of competence/incompetence in a given challenge simply by parsing the language of the head official.

The similarities of the Scottish verdicts and the language of NFL challenges is not coincidental, even if it is not intentional. This is because both Scottish verdicts and NFL officials seek to recognize a reality that is more complicated than the binary system of language that most people consciously employ. By providing a gray area between two poles that leads to a status quo outcome without accepting the claims made by one party at face value, the trilemma allows for a greater clarity in understanding the reasons and motivations behind the decisions people make. This gray area is useful in determining what needs to be done–whether to accept a verdict or to seek to provide others with greater certainty through more and better evidence. This greater clarity helps everyone who is involved in decision-making, by providing more information to everyone involved, no matter how satisfied or dissatisfied they may be by a particular outcome. Better logic leads to more information, and everyone is a winner in some way.

[1] is but one example of several, although the most popular on this blog.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Musings, Sports and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Strange Similarity Between Scottish Verdicts And NFL Challenges

  1. The Real Zajac says:

    I remember back in 1999, during the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton, I first heard about Scottish verdicts. One senator, on one of the charges, declared “not proven.” Chief Justice Renquist allowed the move and entered it into the official record.

    • I remember that particular incident also. I think that’s where I first heard about Scottish verdicts as well, but I was attempting to go for a slightly less political angle in this post than I often do :).

  2. Pingback: The Reason For My View Of The Season | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: On Equal Pay For Equal Play In Tennis | Edge Induced Cohesion

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