What criteria are used to determine if a receiver makes a catch and then quickly fumbles the football or if a pass is ruled incomplete?
Under National Federation of State High School Association rules there is no clear definition as to when a player has had control long enough to judge catch versus fumble.
Under federation definitions, “a catch is the act of establishing player possession of a live ball which is in flight, and first contacting the ground inbounds or being contacted by an opponent in such a way that he is prevented from returning to the ground inbounds while maintaining possession of the ball.” This last statement differs from NCAA rules, which requires the receiver to come down inbounds, regardless of whether or not the contact by a defender caused him to land out of bounds.
A basic axiom of football is that when in doubt a pass is incomplete rather than a fumble. To follow this to its conclusion if the ball is lost after the receiver has touched the ground, due to contact or not, it should be ruled an incomplete pass instead of a fumble unless the receiver clearly demonstrated he had complete control of the ball. “Complete control” would be indicated by taking a step, tucking the ball away or some other action ordinarily associated with running the ball.
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Of course this requires a judgment be made by the covering official. We do not have the luxury of replay and therefore for consistency we teach our members when in doubt to rule incomplete rather than a fumble. This is the least controversial of choices and therefore the fairest conclusion to draw.