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Odell Beckham Jr pulled off the catch of the season - could he have done it without his gloves?

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The ball is snapped, and New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning drops back two steps. On the opposing side of the line is the New York Jets defensive unit, who have jumped offside. A flag is thrown on the play.

Manning has a free throw knowing the play will be called back to the flag if something goes wrong. He lobs up a half-hearted pass to Odell Beckham Jr, who's heading into his second season in the league with the 2014 Offensive Rookie of the Year award and the record for the most receptions and receiving yards in a player's first 12 games in the league (91 catches, 1,305 yards, 12 touchdowns) under his belt.

Beckham, the league's newest star who adorns the latest incarnation of the wildly successful EA Sports videogame franchise Madden, leaps above cornerback and six-time Pro Bowl star Darrelle Revis, who moved to the Jets from the New England Patriots after helping them to win Super Bowl 49.

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With only a hint of effort, Beckham hangs with one hand in the air, twists and brings the ball in. The catch, which is eventually called out of bounds, is stunning both in its nonchalance and its similarity to his now iconic grab against the Dallas Cowboys last season. That 43-yard touchdown catch, also one-handed, was heralded as the greatest in NFL history. "Simply one of the greatest grabs in a game I have ever seen," Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin said afterwards. 

Cris Collinsworth, calling the game for NBC, went a step further. "That may be the greatest catch I have ever seen," he exclaimed. "You have to be kidding me! That is just impossible!" 

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The Giants' pre-season game against the Jets last month showed it wasn't necessarily a one-off, although anyone who has seen Beckham's one-handed warm-up routine could have told you that.

Beckham is blessed with freakishly large hands for a man with limited stature; at 5'11" he has a 10" handspan, well above the average size for an adult male of about 7 1/2". USA Today, charged with demonstrating the size of his grasp, found he could hold 376 almonds in his hands, compared to 128 an average male hand can manage. Obscure, but effective.

It's not just Beckham pulling off eye-catching one-handed grabs though. Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers reeled in a touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger against the Indianapolis Colts in a similar fashion, and Randall Cobb did the same for the Green Bay Packers against the Chicago Bears. A highlight-reel skill that once seemed rare is now fairly common place.

The elephant in the room? There's a chance none of those balls would have been caught without the gloves they were each wearing. There's a new kind of performance enhancement in town.

Arms Race

The problem starts with NFL regulations on uniforms. An example - the section detailing glove colour rules is 168 words long. The regulation detailing glove tackiness? 41 words long.

Simply put, the rules say adhesive sprays like "Stickum", used by receivers in the 1970's until banned in 1981, are not allowed, but as long as gloves don't leave any residue on the ball then manufacturers are free to push the boundaries as they see fit. Gloves aren't considered essential kit like a helmet or pads say, so aren't subject to the same strict regulations.

From the '81 ban onwards, companies began to develop gloves as an alternative to help increase grip. One of Nike's first offerings was essentially a scuba divers glove with a rubber palm that caused player's hands to sweat and subsequently freeze in cold conditions. Fast forward to 2012, and retail sales of gloves in the US was valued at $200 million, with Nike claiming a 57% market share.

"The ones we wear on a daily basis are sometimes quite sticky," Packers wideout Jordy Nelson admits. "Some of the catches you see, they just kind of just stick to the ball. But you still have to squeeze the point of the ball and catch it just right." Indeed, so tacky are the latest generation of gloves that legendary NFL coach John Madden joked that "pretty soon, these gloves are going to be able to catch a ball without a hand in them.'"

Beckham literally and metaphorically had a hand in the gloves he used to make 'the catch'. He helped develop the red and white XXL Nike Vapor Jet 3.0 models that wrapped around the ball that night, and even he concedes they had more than a helping hand. Nike say the gloves utilise "Magnigrip CL" technology on the palm for better ball control and "a textured synthetic leather at the thumb, pinkie and index finger" that provides "a light, lock-down feel."

"The gloves definitely do help," Beckham said after the catch against Dallas. "It's part of the game, part of football. You can wear gloves. I don't think it's against the rules. But they definitely do help." Could he have made the catch without them? Not according to Hall of Famer Tim Brown. 

"You can't make that play without those kind of gloves. It's just impossible," he said. "The guy's a freak of nature, no doubt about it, I'll give you that. He has the big hands and all that. But those gloves are so 'tackified' these days that that's part of the reason you see guys making those kinds of catches." Beckham's response to the question? "Who knows."

The Nike gloves are compliant with standards established by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, according to Mike Oliver, the committee’s executive director. Gloves developed by Nike and other manufacturers for collegiate athletes have to pass a NOCSAE test which examines to see whether the equipment complies with grip regulations. The NFL does not have to meet the same, or any, standard.

It seems the rise in one-handed grabs has caught the attention of the league. Rich McKay, recently reinstated as chairman of the Competition Committee, says there has been some discussion over introducing more legislation to bring receivers back down to earth. "I think it's time to go back and look at the gloves and see if, with what's going on here with sports science in the past 10 years, if there isn't too much of an advantage being gained," the Atlanta Falcons President told the LA Times.

The NFL and other sports are at something of a crossroads when it comes to equipment technology in sport. Old receiving records set in the league more than 20 years ago are a rare thing now; Lance Alworth's record for most 200-yard games, Bill Groman's 1960 record for most rookie receiving yards and Charley Hennigan's 1961 record for most 100+ yard-games in a season are the last of a dying breed in a list dominated by players who entered the league from 1980 onwards. 

Progress

That of course isn't solely down to gloves; the league's gradual transition to a quarterback and pass friendly game is a major factor. There's also been huge leaps made in footwear, padding and helmets as well as sports science, but it's a fair question to ask; can records and stats set with gloves compare with those set with bare hands? Has the sport diverged so far from its past that records should come with an asterisk?

Jerry Rice spoke to ESPN about the technological arms race amongst sportswear manufacturers earlier this year. The 52-year-old holds the record for most receiving yards (22,895) in NFL history.

"I had 1549 [career] catches," he said. "If I had those gloves [for my entire career] and played today, that number might triple."

"I think if I had today's NFL gloves in 1978, you wouldn't have heard of the name Jerry Rice," added James Lofton, another Hall of Fame receiver.

Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz's claim that you "catch with your eyes" holds true and there's no substitute for talent. Fans also want to see an entertaining product that the league is keen to provide; and as Cris Collinsworth says: "It's an entertainment business. Why not make it as entertaining as possible?" 

But that's a dangerous line to walk, and one that other sports, such as cycling, has grappled with. Every fan wants to watch heroic athletes conquer European mountains every summer, but at what cost? The cost of the sport's integrity and soul? Of its inherent value that pits one man and his skillset against another?

If one athlete is allowed to work with a company to develop specifically-made gloves with maximum grip that his opponents don't have access to, is it a level playing field? Or is it an artificial inflation of one man's ability that actually does him a disservice because experts give credit to the gloves when it's all down to him?

These are questions that the NFL, and others, must answer. It is time to start the soul-searching process and discover what those in charge want their sport to be; an entertainment product, or the pursuit of pure athletic achievement.

Do you think wide receiver gloves should be BANNED in the NFL?

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Topics:
Nike Football
NFL
Roger Goodell
New York Giants

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