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What do the rules say should happen if a defender throws a towel at a pass, like UCLA just tried?

Meet “unfair acts,” the obscure rulebook item that prevents players from just doing whatever.

There was nothing dramatic about Week 2’s Hawaii-UCLA game in Los Angeles. The Bruins were up four touchdowns by halftime, and they coasted to a 56-23 final.

But after garbage time had already commenced, one unusual play happened on a third-and-five for Hawaii at midfield. Rainbow Warriors quarterback Dru Brown uncorked a pass to slanting receiver John Ursua, and while the ball was in the air, UCLA defensive tackle Chigozie Nnoruka threw a towel at it:

Nnoruka, wearing No. 93, decided to try skeet shooting, except his gun was his right hand and the clay disc was a leather football. It didn’t work. His towel might’ve grazed the ball, but it kept traveling to Ursua, and Hawaii picked up the first down. No flag was thrown, and if one had been, what would it have even been for? The Rainbow Warriors punted a few plays later, and the game resumed being unremarkable

The NCAA’s rulebook says nothing about “throwing a towel at the ball.”

That doesn’t mean you’re allowed to do it, of course.

There are all kinds of illegal things that aren’t listed in the rulebook. The only mention of a “weapon” in the rules is a prohibition on “simulating the firing of a weapon” as unsportsmanlike conduct, but that doesn’t mean you can bring a gun onto the field.

This isn’t like in baseball, where there’s a specific rule that says a defender can’t throw his glove at a fair ball. If he does and hits it, everyone gets three free bases, as happened when the Rangers’ Elvis Andrus tried such a stunt in 2015. There’s no reference in the NCAA’s rulebook to using one inanimate object to try to stop another.

Had the towel toss been caught, it likely would’ve been called an “unfair act.”

This is the rulebook’s elastic clause. Per Rule 9, Article 3, these are “unfair acts.”

-A team refuses to play within two minutes after ordered to do so by the referee.

-A team repeatedly commits fouls for which penalties can be enforced only by halving the distance to its goal line.

-An obviously unfair act not specifically covered by the rules occurs during the game

If officials judge that a team’s done any of these things, they can call unsportsmanlike conduct. Then, the referee gets to do whatever he wants. The rules say he “may take any action he considers equitable, which includes directing that the down be repeated, including assessing a 15-yard penalty, awarding a score, or suspending or forfeiting the game.”

These are important rules to have, and the people who made them hoped they’d never have to be used. Can you imagine how annoying it’d be if a defense was backed up to its own 1-yard line and kept taking encroachment penalties for six hours, preventing the offense from snapping the ball? Eventually, the zebras would run out of “half the distances” to assess by moving an 11-inch ball forward, despite what the laws of division say.

The third bullet there — “an obviously unfair act not specifically covered by the rules occurs during the game” — should cover an attempt to shoot down a ball with a towel. It could also cover someone macing an opponent or doing some sort of obviously criminal act. You could watch football for a lifetime and not see these rules get used.

The officials on the field didn’t see this towel throw. What if they had?

The referee’s trained to watch the area around the quarterback when he throws the ball, and the rest of his crew is trained to watch the intended receiver.

There are a million things the zebras look out for every play, from making sure each team only has 11 guys on the field to watching for little skirmishes after the whistle. Looking for defenders throwing objects to knock down the ball is a bit off the board.

Had the officials seen the toss, I doubt UCLA’s Nnoruka would’ve been thrown out of the game. I also doubt the ref would’ve given the game to Hawaii by forfeiture. One possibility would’ve been simply warning Nnoruka, keeping with the point that most officials don’t really like to call fouls. If they did, there’d be holding called all the time.

At any rate, chucking a towel at the ball is only illegal if officials say it is.

Generally, you’d think they would. But maybe they wouldn’t.