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Friday, December 31, 2010

Rules as Sport

The first in a series of explorations on rules, laws and other dictums

Sport is the place where rules are borne out with the most clarity, in theory anyway. We can see the patterns readily developing right before our eyes on a measured course that’s scrutinized by multifarious cameras, officials and analysts. The crimes in sports are well defined, the punishments quickly enacted (unless you’re from Ohio St.), and the guilty parties summarily chastised and called out by number. We want athletes to receive consequences for their actions, whether it be on the field or off (though if you’re from Ohio St. and there’s a big bowl game coming up, the flag is waived temporarily).

The tendency to scrutinize in-game rules is likely connected to the growing societal desire to be litigious. We can’t just let teams play games any more. We feel that we have to micromanage them in order to ensure that justice has been properly served. Watch closely what happens on the field, because sports mimics life, and as such is a microcosm of society.

The following college football rules are presented as being a detriment to the game, causing the accuracy of the outcome to be skewed. One can measure to the nth degree, but if what you’re measuring is based on rules applied in different fashions and you basically don’t know what it is you’re measuring, accurate readings don’t tell you much.

Defensive Timeouts
The defensive team shouldn’t be able to call a timeout once the ball has been placed for the play. It should be like in chess how once you touch a piece, you have to move it. If the ball is in the hands of the center, you live with it at that point. Once the referee relinquishes the ball, it should belong to the offense, and ostensibly the play has then begun, because it now has the potential to begin at any moment the quarterback and center so choose.

Pass Interference
Pass interference should be the distance of the pass play, not just 15 yards. It encourages the defenders to interfere with the pass when they’re beat, and it penalizes the offense that would have had a 30-yard pass play. When we start giving the defense incentives to commit penalties, then we know something’s wrong with the application of the rule.

Think about it… a kickoff that goes out of bounds places the ball at the 40-yard line, which is roughly a 15-yard difference from what would have been expected (although it guarantees there won’t be a return for a touchdown). But a 30-yard pass that is flagrantly broken up before the receiver has a chance to catch it isn’t given due process for the expected outcome. The expected outcome would have been a 30-yard gain or more.

What the pass interference rule shows is a lack of confidence in the official’s ability to make an accurate call, because we apparently don’t want them blowing a potential 50-yard swing, but 15 yards shouldn’t have as much of an effect, and people won’t complain as much. The NFL, on the other hand, spots the penalty at the point of infraction, which makes more sense.

24-second Injuries
If you go out for an injury that stops the clock, you should have to stay on the bench for the rest of that series. This would help curb the faking of injuries, because currently the only dissuading factor is missing one play, which isn’t a punishment at all. I like these trainers who come out on the field to help with the charade. “Where doesn’t it hurt? Do you need a stretcher? Can I get you a latte? How many fingers am I holding, rounding up to the nearest five… OK, my work here is done.”

Delay of Game
This one is silly upon silly. A team hikes the ball 1 second later than their allotted time, and so the play is cancelled, and what happens? A 60-second delay ensues to enact a delay of game penalty against the team that went 1 second over. That’s like spending ten thousand dollars on a trial to convict someone who stole a Zagnut. Can we give the referees a delay of game penalty too? They’re nothing but lawyers with stripes.

Off-setting Personal Fouls
If two opposing players engage in shenanigans, the penalties are washed out like nothing happened? I think they should make both of them do 20 pushups while the organist plays “I’m a Loser.” And personal fouls should result in the rest of that drive without playing. I like the hockey philosophy that you have to spend some time in prison to pay for your misdeeds, and then they’ll let you out into society again when you’re rehabilitated.

Ineligible Receiver Downfield
I hate it when those 350-pound behemoths go out for a corner pattern. It really messes up defenses. Who knows what chaos could result? And what makes them a receiver just because they went downfield? That never made sense to me. Ineligible Schmineligible.

Intentional Grounding
Intentionally trying to get away from the defender and not take a sack. What on earth was the quarterback thinking? Why should a pass have to be toward or near someone? Oh, if you chuck it out of bounds past the line of scrimmage, then apparently that’s different. Why is “avoiding a sack” a bad thing? If you throw the ball before you get tackled, it’s logical that would simply be an incomplete forward pass. Big deal. Maybe just make any forward pass that doesn’t cross the line of scrimmage a live ball.

Yardage on Penalties
Why is the maximum for a standard penalty set at only 15 yards? There should also be 20-yard penalties. They do have spot fouls, but they’re rarely applied. Unnecessary roughness penalties should be something like 25 yards. And the player should have to wear a red sticker on their helmet the rest of the game, indicating that they can’t be trusted.

25-second Clock Between Plays
It’s mainly used to stall in the second half. Do they really need 25 seconds to get ready for each play? No, they just don’t want to have to run more plays. They already have another 10 seconds or so before the ball is spotted. (“Oh, look! There it is…”) The game could be shortened to 40 minutes and have a 15-second clock instead. Then teams couldn’t run out the clock as easily at the end of a game. And then we’d live happily ever after.

Intentional Delay of Game Penalties
If a team purposely takes a penalty in order to better position themselves for a punt, then they should be further penalized for a frivolous use of a penalty. I say tack on another 60 yards and see what they think then.

Pushing the Ball Carrier
Offensive linemen pushing the player with the ball in a pile. This is just wrong. It’s not consistent with other rules. A player can’t hoist another player to give him added height. What is this, group sumo?

Celebrating After a Play
No saluting allowed? Kind of dumb, right? Yeah, I thought so. In our attempt to curtail ostentatious celebrations, we’re limiting basic arm movements?

Defensive Timeouts II
The defense is allowed to call a timeout before a field goal attempt just to ice the kicker. This is misuse of a timeout. A timeout is for planning upcoming plays, not for psychological warfare. If you’re using it for something other than to strategize, you’re wasting the spectator’s time. But it also does raise an interesting concept. Kickers need less time to get ready for a play, and all other players need more time to get ready for a play.

Timeouts in General
Six timeouts per game? Per team? Do the teams really have a burning need for 12 timeouts in a 60-minute contest? Which, by the way, stops on out of bounds plays and incomplete passes and penalties and when the referees need to floss. Timeouts are an excuse to dog it and for the networks to cash in on more advertising.

TV Timeouts After a Kickoff
A team has just received a kickoff and returned the ball, and is ready to go on first down. This needs a commercial break why? Oh no, we just had 7 whole seconds of action, we need to rest again. Can’t you see me panting over here?

Prevent Defense
Success is psychological. Defenses outfox themselves at the end of a half by giving more to the offense, after holding them down the entire half, then they suddenly can’t stop them. On the flipside, the offense which looked lethargic for 29 minutes now appears liberated and unstoppable. As such, I propose that the vaunted Prevent Defense should receive a 15-yard penalty anytime it’s enacted. You just gave that receiver a 15-yard buffer, so you get penalized in kind.

Running Out the Clock
This isn’t American. With 2 minutes to go, a team can run out the clock by taking a knee three times if the other team is out of timeouts. What an unceremoniously anticlimactic way to end a game. All this built-up excitement, excitement, excitement… now let’s check our watches and engage in some helpful time management exercises. Stalling… stalling… going to a knee. Boy, this is fun. At least do something a little more entertaining, like maybe cartwheels or something. Or selling your trophies. Anything would be better than the dipsy-do. I paid $60 for tickets to see the contest culminate with three successive prayers at the end? What happened to “I will fear no evil.” Run it up the gut. Where’s the violence in going to your knee?

Overtime and Out
The Kansas Plan for overtime is a vote of no confidence for the adequacy of the normal rules. Suddenly we have to be transformed to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where suddenly it’s a different game and things become curiouser and curiouser (spellcheck has no respect for Lewis Carroll, by the way). What you’ve been playing for the last sixty minutes was only a mirage, and since you ninnies couldn’t settle it that way, we’ll have to give you some help. It’s like playing half-court in basketball.

This is my most despised rule in all of sports, just ahead of penalty kicks to end a soccer game and making the coach answer three dumb questions at the start of halftime — to which there are three basic answers: we need to execute better, we’ll have to assess that during halftime, and he’s in a coma but we expect him back out there for the second half.

So the Kansas Plan is telling the teams, “We need to give you some help to score because you wouldn’t be able to do it under the normal rules. And you’re pathetic too.” First of all, the teams start on the other team’s 25-yard line, which means they start in field goal range. So the defense already is backed up, and the objective at that point is to hold them to a field goal. This is football? Knute Rockne would be rolling in his grave (which would then be called as a celebration penalty, unless you’re from Ohio St., in which case it will be applied at the start of next season).

Any supposed reasons for needing the Kansas Plan are quickly dispelled. Up front, we should be leery in general of something in football which follows after Kansas. The state rarely, if ever, has an upper tier football program. Why would we want to follow them? They’re lousy at football, and their Master Plan shows it even more. Jayhawks are only good at basketball, and we wouldn’t heed the advice of Navy’s basketball program for a basketball overtime, where they said to start at mid-court and shoot bank shots off the opposing team’s mascot.

So, do they need to start on the 25-yard line because they don’t want it to take a long time? Kicking off and waiting for the first score wouldn’t take long. In the average game, somebody scores halfway through the 1st quarter. Was that so hard? OK, the other objection is that it wouldn’t be equitable for one team to be the kicking team while the other team is the receiving team. Why not? Don’t the general rules already make it equitable? You kick it down, they return it to about the 20 or 25, if you have a good defense, you hold them to a couple first downs and they punt. Voila! But if you allow them to drive all the way down to your 25 and kick a field goal, then you deserve to lose anyway. Oh, but the Kansas Plan says let’s just put them there to begin with and see what develops. Heck, the clock isn’t even used in overtime. I think you can even grab the other player’s face mask without getting flagged. These are not the droids you’re looking for. Everything is different in Pretendville.

As far as being equitable, the artificial component of seeing what the opponent did first and then trying to match it or beat it is an advantage. Does anybody ever win the coin toss and then elect to go first? No, never. That’s probably because it’s so equitable to do either one.

The NFL uses sudden death overtime, which is much more interesting, dramatic and representative of true football skill.

The Under-Review Appeal Process
Reviewing the play and trying to get the next play off before it can get reviewed. There’s something insincere about the whole process. Hurry to see what you can get away with, so you don’t have to stand trial against the revered under-review system. See if you can dodge fate. Other team call a timeout to give the booth more time. It’s a new game within a game. Do we really need added levels of complexity in order to accomplish more cohesiveness?

In truth, the assumed precision of the instant replay review and its inconsistent application is a little unnerving, and even distracting from the natural flow of the game and its enjoyment as a dramatic spectacle. For balls touching the ground on catches or feet staying in bounds, we seem to have to know within a micron if the laws of nature were breeched. And yet on a pass interference call, the receiver can get clobbered before the ball ever arrives, and the replay booth’s reaction is always supposed to be, “Hmm. Good call, ref.” Why the disconnect here? I say every call is a judgment call.

If you’re not going to apply precision across the board, it’s inconsistent and consequently warps the application of the rules. It would be like having a law requiring seatbelts to be worn by adults and then letting everybody else ride motorcycles and go bungee jumping. Oh, they have that already. That’s what I mean.

The game happens in real time, so I believe it should be judged in real time, except possibly in the most extenuating of circumstances, such as perhaps a photo finish in the Preakness — obviously to see if the jockey on Sophie’s Cortisone Shot was using the chop block. But, please, not ten times a game. “Uh-oh, close play again… We are unable to process this play on our own and have no confidence in the ref’s ability to call it correctly, so we may want to override it.” C’mon, where’s your real technology? If the men behind the curtain in the booth are so all-knowing, why can’t they judge it as it happens? Personally, I never second-guess a referee if I couldn’t tell otherwise with the naked eye. If they make an egregious call in error, fine… then let’s reverse those. But the ones where we have to analyze at 1/1000th of a second frames and the supposed precision to measure the touchability of a ball against the ground just because it looks like maybe it did from 100 feet away, that’s a speculative enterprise. I saw a play where the receiver’s foot appeared to be barely touching the sideline. However, what wasn’t accounted for was the 3-dimensional aspect of the situation. From an overhead view, his toe appeared to cross the line, but what couldn’t be seen at that angle or from that distance was if the cleat was actually touching the line underneath, since the toe protrudes without necessarily touching the ground. Sometimes assumed precision is worse than not trying to use a great deal of precision. As humans, we like to think that we’re applying a sophisticated level of judgment, but we err in not recognizing our limitations, and in the flow of a game, getting nitpicky serves no one except maybe covering the officiating crew against liability. Liability from being criticized.

Lack of Playoffs or Lack of Overall Vision
Quit spending so much time on the nitty gritty rules, when the most blatant rule breaking is at the macro level. If properly applied, college football would have at least an 8-team tournament. Think for a second about what the BCS system fundamentally represents. It is completely counterintuitive to the whole idea behind having representative rules which are pure to the game. The BCS system rewards for and encourages scoring additional points. So then the objective becomes not to win the game, but to win the game convincingly. Now style points come into play. A win should be good enough, though. Auburn gets credit for pirouetting and landing the triple Lindy, but TCU was docked for eking out a nail-biter against Sisters of the Poor A&M, who were nursing a 142-game losing streak and had seven players on crutches — who were in the game. But BCS is using too much judging and not letting the outcome be determined by the teams.

In essence, the NCAA championship is not for the entire NCAA FBS (Div. I-A), but just six conferences: the Big Ten, Pac 10, Big East, SEC, ACC and Big 12. Out of the 120 FBS teams, 65 are in those conferences, but 55 are not. So last year, Alabama was the champion of the 65 and Boise St. was the champion of the other 55, and never the twain shall meet. Well, isn’t that special…

And finally, to put in all into perspective, there is no “should have” in sports. If “should have” had any bearing, then there’d be no need to go through the formality of playing the game. The very reason they play the games is because the “should haves” can’t be determined. When an announcer says “He should’ve caught that ball,” the announcer is using a false standard of expectation. There is no should about it. He either catches it or he doesn’t. If he truly should have, then he truly would have. What you could say is, “Normally, you’d expect him to catch a ball like that.” However, nothing in sports is absolute, so you can’t say that a player should always be able to do a certain thing. Human error must be accounted for. If there weren’t human error, then the game could be decided with X’s and O’s in a smoke-filled board room somewhere in Nantucket, while everybody else is relaxing on the beaches of Cancun. So next time a guy drops a ball, what ought to be said is, “Actually, he shouldn’t have caught that ball.”

Players will also make excuses, concluding “We should’ve won that game.” No you shouldn’t have. Because you didn’t. You had the chance and it didn’t happen. It may have been out of your control at some juncture, but that still doesn’t absolve the situation of not having imperfect conditions. Referees make errors. Players make errors. Coaches make errors. They’re supposed to happen. To say we should’ve won if X didn’t happen ignores the fact that many manifestations of X are going to happen in every game. Trying to remove X from the equation is just wishful thinking in action.

I like the ESPN analyst earlier this year who said that Virginia Tech may have lost to Boise St., but we should also consider that Virginia Tech would beat them if they played them again. That’s kind of like when Sirhan Sirhan was asking for parole, he commented to the parole board that Bobby Kennedy would’ve let him go free. Dang, just his luck the one man who would’ve let him free and he had to go and kill him…

But such is the rationale among sport pundits. “If they hadn’t lost, they would’ve won.” Alabama apologists were earlier calling for a measure of reasoning in consideration of Alabama’s rating, in that they had just had three consecutive tough conference road games to contend with, and perhaps Allstate could give them accident forgiveness and call it good. These are the people determining the poll rankings and BCS placement, and we’re not in good hands. As Ed Grimley was wont to say, “We’re doomed as doomed can be…”

Funny also that teams will often say they should’ve won, but when it happens the other way around, they’re curiously not saying “We should’ve lost.” If the should’ves ruled, every team would have a winning record. Oh great, now we’ll have 120 teams going to bowl games. Break out your Lipitor® Anti-Cholesterol Bowl between Akron and San Jose St. That one should be a riveting matchup.


Roy Southwick said...

Here are two basketball rules I would like to changed:

1) Change all non-shooting fouls to one free throw for the person fouled and then the shooter's team retains possession of the ball. And for all shooting fouls, the shooter gets two (or three) shots, and then his team gets the ball.

2) No foul limit for any player, which is currently a five-foul limit for high school and college and then six for pro.

For rule No. 1, why do we need to turn every basketball game into a new game of fouling at the end? For the team that is losing, this strategy is basically, 'well, for the first 90% of the game, we weren't good enough to beat this team, but if we go ahead and hack them a few half-dozen times then maybe we'll get lucky and they'll miss some free throws.' Then you get into 'fouls-to-give' and 'in-the-bonus' and 'two-shot fouls from here on out.' How did we change the game to all of this? If you are losing the first 90% of the game, you should not have the easy-way-out and desperate opportunity to 'foul' your way back into the game. So, if you simply say all non-shooting fouls are one free throw (with no need for anyone standing off the key for a rebound ... similar to technical fouls and intentional fouls) and then the shooter's team gets to take the ball out, then that would cause the team that is behind to buckle down and win the right way by playing good defense and making big shots. And for shooting fouls, simply give the two (or three) shots, and then the ball back. It is all about possession. The defending team should only be awarded possession by either stealing the ball, cause a turnover, or getting the rebound. A 'foul' should not be a strategy to get the ball back in your possession.

If rule No. 1 were applied, then rule No. 2 would be more natural since there would simply be less fouls in a game since it would be foolish to foul so much because there is really no 'advantage' to 'fouling.' But, here is another reason for no limit of fouls. I find it even more annoying when a player picks up a second foul early in a game and then you hear the announcer say the coach will likely take out the player until the second half because the player is in 'foul trouble.' Or, when they pick up the third or fourth foul later in the game, they are again removed due to 'foul trouble.' Can't we just let the free throws be enough of a penalty for the fouler? What if football had a rule that said an offensive lineman only gets three false starts a game. So, in the first quarter there is a false start and the announcer says, 'well, Dobbins is now into 'false-start trouble' and we may not see him back until the second quarter.' How have we come to the irony where we take a player out of the game, so that we can keep them in the game. Huhhh?? Let's just let the best players out on the court.

Jeff Crandall said...

I can't say where I've been, but I'm glad I'm back. Once again, words to bungee-jump by...

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