Research Papers in Physics and Astronomy


Date of this Version



Am. J. Phys. 88 (9), September 2020, pp 704-710;



Copyright 2020 American Association of Physics Teachers.


An American football is a rotationally symmetric object, which, when well-thrown, spins rapidly around its symmetry axis. In the absence of aerodynamic effects, the football would be a torque-free gyroscope and the symmetry/spin axis would remain pointing in a fixed direction in space as the football moved on its parabolic path. When a pass is well-thrown through the atmosphere, however, the symmetry axis remains—at least approximately—tangent to the path of motion. The rotation of the symmetry axis must be due to aerodynamic torque; yet, that torque, at first glance, would seem to have precisely the opposite effect. Here, we explain the action of aerodynamics on the ball’s orientation at second glance.