The prompt for a Zeno discussion on Oregon-Oregon State.

There are a lot of ways to come across discussion of Zeno’s paradoxes of motion, whether that’s through philosophy classes, Greek history, discussion of them from modern writers, satire from Terry Pratchett, or even just browsing Wikipedia. And now that list includes an ESPN college football broadcast, where announcers Dave Flemming and Rod Gilmore wound up getting to Zeno’s dichotomy paradox (albeit without naming it) around a discussion of offsides penalties.

That paradox, from fifth-century B.C. philosopher Zeno of Elea, is “That which is in locomotion must arrive at the half-way stage before it arrives at the goal” ( as recounted by Aristotle). And it leads to an argument that you can never get anywhere because to get there you must get halfway there, to get halfway there you must get a quarter there, and so on until you wind up with an infinite number of tasks. Here’s how that was discussed on ESPN in terms of offsides, and “half the distance to the goal.”

Flemming says “Really, the penalty is so little, why not do it?” Gilmore says “Smart.” Flemming says “They did it last play and it wasn’t called.” Gilmore says “Right. And what if they flag you? They’re going to move it a quarter-inch?” Flemming says “You can almost keep doing it. They can never put you in the end zone.” Gilmore says “Right. That penalty cost you a quarter of an inch!”

This is particularly funny in that the offsides penalty in college football is perhaps more applicable to real life than Zeno’s dichotomy paradox ever was. After all, critic Diogenes had a pretty good rebuttal:

And the original paradox can actually be solved mathematically with calculus integrals, which can take infinitesimally small fractions and produce an overall result. By that approach, the walker would eventually reach their destination, which is what common sense and Diogenes would tell us. But that doesn’t hold true in college football and a world of “half the distance to the goal.” Half the distance is never going to equal the full distance, and so it’s theoretically possible to imagine Oregon deliberately going offsides on every single play and causing it to be whistled dead until we hit the top of the 47th:

At any rate, this was eventually resolved with Oregon State backup QB Chance Nolan plunging in for a touchdown to give the Beavers the win, and no further need for any “half the distance to the goal” penalties. But somewhere, Zeno of Elea is probably laughing at seeing this discussion pop up on a college football broadcast 2,450 years after his death. And this was some fun Pac-12 Philosophy After Dark.

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About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing and The Comeback. He previously worked at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.