Like stories, sports are not simply constrained by rules, they are defined by them. What we enjoy and take from sports after the fact is, for the most part, a narrative almost indistinguishable from fictional ones we create or are entertained by, but because sports usually play out in real time the rules are inevitably more obvious to the audience. In recognition of the importance of rules, sports almost always feature officials who are charged with enforcing those rules, albeit as inconspicuously as possible. Without officials, most sports would descend into chaos in short order — as still happens from time time.
I’ve noted previously that even a simple rule change can have a big effect on the narrative of a sport. Three years ago the National Basketball Association decided to officially adopt a rule that had been in practical use for years. This new rule gave players with the ball the right to take two full steps without dribbling — which, given the stride-length of many NBA players, effectively allowed them to go from the perimeter to the basket without putting the ball on the floor. This, in turn, has had a commensurate positive effect on scoring, which the audience enjoys.
This year the NBA instituted a new rule about so-called flopping — the intentional faking of a foul so as to cause officials to charge the opposing player with an infraction that player did not in fact commit. The new rule is designed to punish players who routinely flop, a move necessitated by the fact that flopping has eroded the integrity of the game and the authority of NBA officials. (Even though there are three officials covering each NBA game the players know those officials can’t see everything. Fans and the media, however, often have clear evidence of a flop, particularly when an instant replay is shown. No sport can survive that kind of routine and objective breakdown at the officiating level, as waning public interest in Major League Baseball’s arbitrary and often incompetent officiating continues to demonstrate.)
In the past year I also commented on the fact that the NFL had to change a few existing rules that were eroding the appeal of its product. Specifically, the time-honored tradition of allowing defensive players to physically cripple offensive players had to be revised because of new evidence that all those “great hits” were leading to things like “brain damage” and “slow, agonizing, premature death” after players retired. While these rule changes were made in part to minimize the amount of money the league will inevitably have to to pay for crippling and killing its own employees, the changes were also necessary to protect the audience from feeling queasy about enjoying what had become undeniable if not unconscionable brutality. Even in this example, however, where outside information (medical data) intruded on the sport, all it took to solve the problem and support the medium were simple changes in the rules.
Now, contrast the above examples with what the NFL did at the beginning of the 2012-2013 season, because what the league did then affected the medium of sports itself, yet nobody at the time had any inkling of what that portended. Let me repeat that. Despite decades of experience working in or covering professional sports, all of the people who caused the problem, and all of the people in the media who commented on the problem, had no understanding of what was happening even as events unfolded week by week. [ Read more ]