Sports rules and laws

There’s something arguably wrong with every sport; how could it not be so? Soccer doesn’t have enough scoring for game scores to be a good indicator of relative performance, football and flat racing hurt their players, NASCAR is climate-hostile, and on and on.  The rules of life  - laws - are perpetually flawed too, but we constantly try to fix them.   I think sport authorities should be more willing than they are to fix the games from time to time, recognizing that some fixes will be mistakes (the DH in baseball was silly and remains so).  Taller and better players have reduced basketball to “the teams run down the court and somebody puts the ball through the net.  Then they run back and someone puts the ball in the other net.  Occasionally the ball doesn’t go in the net: the team that has fewest of these mistakes wins.”  The idea is on the table to raise the net, analogous to the idea (not on the table, though I wish it were) to enlarge the soccer goal by a foot or two each way, and to  banning anchored putting in golf.

The last of these is scheduled not to happen until 2016; easing transitions is often a good idea, but does it take three years for golfers to put their long putter in the attic and buy another?  The basketball idea, which makes sense, raises the interesting question, should we pick a number, say one foot, and raise all the hoops that much at once, or raise them an inch every season until we’re happy with the result?  Sometimes we change laws a lot all at once, like allowing same-sex marriage; sometimes we make small adjustments, like the inflation adjustment in Social Security payments.

Some things have to be highly quantized: for the Brits to convert to right-side driving in stages, as the joke goes (“for the first week, the new rules will only apply to buses and trucks”) would be a bad idea.  But others allow for gradual change.  A one-foot change all at once would greatly devalue the muscle memory of all players, but gradual change would keep those skills mostly in service as the transition occurred.  I don’t think the mechanical costs of converting goals to be adjustable in this way are as daunting as, say, making soccer goals adjustable.


Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

34 thoughts on “Sports rules and laws”

  1. I think that all at once is the way to go.

    I don’t know how I came to be watching the following (many years before YouTube), insofar as I don’t watch basketball or other sports. A couple of then-greats (Magic Johnson, maybe?) showed off their ability to dribble the ball all the way down the court, and then dunk it, blindfolded. They knew the court well enough that they were willing to risk a sidelining injury for this silly stunt! I can’t put my finger on it, but I want to say that this level of precision will be thrown off by an inch as much as a foot, so go for the foot.

    BTW I think that your summary of basketball isn’t nuanced enough to account for players like this (excellent Michael Lewis profile of Shane Battier).

    1. John McPhee’s biography of Bill Bradley has a story about him going to a new gym to practice, missing his first few shots, and then correctly announcing that the basket was about an inch and a half too low. Once he figured it out, though, it didn’t stop him from making the rest of his shots…

  2. As a short person who enjoys playing basketball, I have often felt there should be height-based player classes, with different basket heights for teams in the different height classes. Sort of like weight classes in boxing.

    1. The cities I have lived in have adult basketball leagues that are 6′ and under. Those of us who are 6’1 think the line was drawn in the wrong place…

  3. Regarding anchored putting:

    I can understand regulating the physical dimensions of clubs, but why the method by which a player uses one? I’m referring to the “belly anchor pivot“)

    If a baseball player found he could hit a ball better by holding the bat by the barrel end, would that be outlawed?

    1. Late in his career, Sam Snead attempted to overcome the “yips” by adopting a croquet-style putting form. The story is that Bobby Jones got one look at it, was horrified, and immediately and ultimately successfully got the practice banned. Golfers are no longer allowed to straddle the line to the hole when putting.

  4. “the teams run down the court (squeak, squeak, squeak) and somebody puts the ball through the net. Then they run back (squeak, squeak, squeak) and someone puts the ball in the other net.

    There, fixed it.

    1. Which pretty much illustrates Michael’s point: the style of play you describe is forced by the 24-second clock, which was put in place to speed up the game and increase scoring for the paying audience. On the other hand, Dean Smith came close to destroying college basketball with his “4-Corners Anti-Offense”. The 35-second clock was added to the college game the year Smith retired and that seems to have struck a reasonable balance between keeping the game moving and allowing time to develop skillful plays.

      Still, even the college men’s game is getting clogged up with each team deploying four incredibly athletic 6’10″‘ers and an equally athletic 7’2″ center. To see actual basketball being played you essentially have to watch the D1 women’s game. I’m in full agreement with Michael’s plan to raise the men’s net, perhaps 6″ to start and then 1″/year until the balance point is reached. I would also make the court 2-3’ wider and hire a really good game theorist to figure out how to stop the foul-fest in the last 2 minutes.


      1. My big problem with basketball is illustrated by the four corners: it’s too hard to get the ball away from an opponent. I find the existence of a shot clock to be an admission that a sport’s rules don’t work. In basketball it shows up in other ways; that’s why the end of a close game turns into a grinding foul fest. If the defense had a real shot to be able to take the ball away from the offense, they’d do that instead of fouling.

        Soccer’s problems are much less fundamental and mostly revolve around the pitch being so big that it’s difficult to put together enough passing or dribbling to get the ball from one end to the other. Too much of the game is spent too far from the scoring areas for it to be successful as an action sport, and its structure and lack of breaks prevent it from being a true thinking sport.

        Ice hockey is, of course, the ultimate action sport. I like baseball and cricket about equally as thinking sports.

  5. I am strongly in favor of the ban on anchored putting in golf, not only because I think it’s a cheat, but on aesthetic grounds. Belly and broom putters look just plain stupid, and they make the golfers using them look stupid, too. I’m a 56-year-old amateur with arthritis in my thumbs and occasionally afflicted with the “yips,” (the putter’s nightmare and the ruination of the great Johnny Miller’s career) but I wouldn’t be caught dead on the greens with one of those abominations. Cavity-back irons, hybrids and 460cc metal drivers are quite enough for me.

  6. The designated hitter rule never bothered me. If you don’t like baseball players having specialized roles, I’d say the worst offender is the hyperspecialized *pitcher*. My favorite crazy idea for fixing this: every inning, the whole defensive side moves up one position (if you played center field in the 1st inning, you play right in the 2nd, then pitch in the 3rd, catch in the 4th …). If you grant that the pitcher is “different” than the position players, another non-disruptive fix might be a “designated non-hitter”—just use an 8-slot batting rotation.

    Isn’t there already a golf rule that prevents you from laying down and using the putter like a pool cue? I don’t see any philosophical difference between this and the anchored-putting ban.

    1. The DH (and your DNH proposal) both violate the symmetry of the game. Nine players, nine innings, 3 outs per inning. Everything in baseball except the number of bases is a power of three. The DNH does more violence in that it ensures that the first third of the order is guaranteed four at-bats.

      The Rules of Golf forbid the player from straddling the line of the stroke. That effectively prohibits pool cue-like strokes.

      1. Symmetry of the game? Give me a break. What does that have to do with actual game play?

        NL pitchers have it too easy. So many games, you’ll see a rally developing, only to be squashed when the automatic out pitcher comes up to bat.

        Back when baseball rules were established, pitching was more like slow pitch softball. The goal was not to get the guy out. The goal was to get him to put it in play. Hence, pitchers spent just as much time working on their hitting as any other position player.

        That’s not the case anymore. A “good” hitting pitcher still doesn’t hit .200. A “good” hitting pitcher usually has a little pop, so might hit a home run once every 50 at bats. It’s a complete joke.

        With the way players spend their time these days, asking pitchers to hit is like asking place kickers to play linebacker.

        The game is better with the DH. And now that interleague play is pretty much constant, I expect it will be implemented in the NL eventually.

        1. What does it have to do with game play?

          Everything. Everyone plays offense, everyone plays defense. Everyone (barring subs) is guaranteed 3 at bats — more if your team produces. Having a weak-hitting pitcher forces the manager to actually manage the game. A manager who doesn’t want to kill a rally can pinch-hit for his pitcher. But that has defensive implications… Put the DH in, and you simplify the job of managing the game.

          Besides, I happen to like symmetries.

          1. Yes, the old “managing challenge” cliche.

            Question: What’s so hard about thinking “wow, this guy can’t hit for beans, we’re behind a run, and we have a chance to score a couple here. Maybe I should pinch hit for my pitcher.”?
            Answer: Nothing.

            Question: When was the last time someone gave a standing ovation to a double switch?
            Answer: Never

            There is no guarantee anyone will bat three times. Pinch hitting for the pitcher takes care of that. Except maybe in the AL where in many games everyone does in fact generally get three at bats, since everyone in the lineup has some reasonable possibility of getting a hit.

            As a fan watching a game, how does knowing everyone plays offense and defense change your perception of the game? I see no possible positive effect except in a theoretical “I love symmetry” sense. Unless you like watching train wrecks, no baseball fan should get any joy out of watching pitcher’s hit.

            And why should someone a team is paying $25 million to throw the ball be forced to risk injury by swinging at it and running? His pay has absolutely nothing to do with these aspects of his performance, yet they have the potential to cost him his career. See Wang, Chien Ming.

            We’re supposed to be watching professional athletes performing at the peak of their talents. Instead, once every 9 ABs we’re forced to watch a sideshow.

          2. I don’t know; I kind of like the DH. (and, my apologies to the poster above who addressed what I have written here, but, it was finished, and with my 2-finger pecking style, I ain’t gonna waste it, so here goes:)

            In all fairness, a starting pitcher is not just another ball player. He has a unique roll, and has special duties unlike those of any other player. The incredible conditioning a pitcher must endure to throw the ball approximately 95 mph, 150 times a game is reserved for that position alone. To make an admittedly far-fetched point, if every player were like every other player, would you have a pitcher, after pitching 6 innings, put on the mask and chest protector to catch the last three innings? You might, but I believe most fans, if pressed to choose, would prefer to watch superb athletes plying their trade than a manager “actually managing.”

            Personally, I’m a chess player, so I love a brilliantly managed game. But, choices have to be made, and no one said they have to be easy.

  7. rather than widening the goal, I think soccer would be bettered (more bettered?) by moving the top bar up a foot or foot and a half. This would put a very high premium on kick accuracy, misses would soar over the bar, goalies would leap up for desperate attempts at saves. Thrilling!

    1. There is a much easier fix, put really tight limits on goalie gloves, just a covering to save the skin, but no padding and some limit on stickiness. Lots more rebounds, which means more shooting, more offensive display and goals. And no need to change fundamental rules at all.

  8. The reason the ban on anchored putting doesn’t take effect until 2016 isn’t about introducing the rule gradually. It’s that the Rules of Golf are only subject to change every four years. The next window for alterations is 2016. They can’t introduce a new rule until then.

  9. For fixing Basketball, I’d be happy if they fixed the last 30 seconds takes 10 minutes problem.

    It’s a horrible experience to watch the ‘foul on inbound’ aspect.

    1. Some of my best fantasy rules changes are in basketball, and the most crucial one involves the end of the game. It is a travesty that most close games come down to a string of deliberate fouls, needed by the trailing team to prevent the leader from dribbling out the clock. The only real way to fix it is with radical surgery. Replace the current last two minutes with a new final period in which there is no game clock. Instead, the teams play “first to the score of X,” where X is seven points more than the leaders’ score at the start of the final period. Deliberate fouls go out the window; good offense and good defense are the same as they are the rest of the game. The potential of drama is at least as great as under current rules. Also, I think it is a plus that every game, close or not, ends with a score by the winning team. If only.

    2. All that has to be done in the last two minutes is to make the expected cost of fouling too high. For a 70% foul shooter, three foul shots has an expected value of -2.1 points, and nearly an 80% chance of scoring either 2 or 3 points. Make it four shots, and the expected value is -2.8 points (for a 70% shooter) and a better than 90% chance of scoring at least 2 points. Even for a 50% shooter, the expected value is 2 points and a 69% chance of scoring at least 2.

      Make a deliberate foul in the last two minutes a four shot offense as well as a personal foul against the total and you won’t see deliberate fouls in the last two minutes. Even better, it puts a premium on free throw shooting, a skill that has been sadly lacking of late.

      1. Some tinkering along these lines has been tried over time. One could surely make the penalty for deliberate fouls (or all fouls) at the end of the game high enough to make them unproductive. But then, teams with narrow leads will successfully dribble out the clock; boooring. Hence my conclusion that something more radical is needed.

        1. Why not simply let the trailing team retain possession after scoring, with one point awarded to the leading team in exchange?

          That would get rid of the endless free throw parade, among other things.

  10. Eccentric chess genius (is there any other kind?) Bobby Fischer suggested that the rules of his favorite game be changed so that the pieces are set up randomly instead of always in the same formation.

    This way, he says, chess players wouldn’t spend so much time memorizing openings and the focus would be more on tactics.

  11. Another way to increase scoring in soccer would be to change the offsides rule. For example, the offsides rule is not in effect if the attacking team has been in possession in the opponents’ half for five seconds, or if they have a free kick in the opponents’ half. “Goal-hanging” would still be prevented that way. The goalkeepers’ privileges could also be diminished: no use of hands outside the goal box, maybe, or (as with hockey) some disincentive for just holding on to a save. (Opponent gets a throw-in, for example.) This provides some reward for getting a shot on net.

  12. I think the NBA should change by having refs call travelling on any player who takes more than 40 steps without dribbling (yeah, I know, I’m a killjoy).

    1. I don’t watch NBA ball anymore specifically because it isn’t at all clear that traveling is even possible in the league.

  13. A one-foot change all at once would greatly devalue the muscle memory of all players, but gradual change would keep those skills mostly in service as the transition occurred. I don’t think the mechanical costs of converting goals to be adjustable in this way are as daunting as, say, making soccer goals adjustable.

    I think you’re greatly underestimating those costs.

    There are basically three kinds of baskets. There’s the kind you find on any given municipal playground: attached to metal backboards bolted to metal poles stuck in concrete. There’s the kind you find in high school and college gymnasiums, attached to glass backboards suspended from the ceiling by complicated systems of pulleys and armatures and guy wires. And then there’s the kind you find in NBA stadiums, where the pole holding up the backboard is an elegantly engineered flying buttress.

    I get how the Bulls could afford to tinker with their beautiful glass and steel sculptures. Most colleges could probably find the money in their athletics budget. High schools, probably not. Rec leagues and the YMCA are still paying off the mortgage on the original pole they bought back in 1973. And municipal parks can probably barely keep their courts open. How many basketball hoops are there in the world? Tens of millions, virtually all of them within an inch of 10 feet. The costs associated with changing them all would easily run into the billions of dollars-and that’s the dead-simple change of raising the backboard a foot. You’re talking about installing a new mechanism on all of them, a mechanically nontrivial one that takes a fixed pole and makes it an adjustable pole.

    And you would have to change ALL of them, because it only takes one weak link for the whole basketball food chain to get poisoned. Just consider one obvious breaking point, where the NCAA has forced all its member schools to go with the adjustable rim (because the NBA did it). Will high schools follow suit? The richer ones will. The poorer ones will lag behind, or say the hell with it, and start leading the counterrevolutionary charge. And all of a sudden, basketball-arguably the world’s least elitist major sport, and yes I’m aware of soccer/football-has a massive economic cliff built right in. Scholarships and team spots would immediately start going to the kid who had the adjustable rim to practice on, and not the one who didn’t.

    In all seriousness, it would be easier and less damaging to the game to change the rules to make the ball square. The moral here is that infrastructure has an enormous amount of inertia, and basically ALL of basketball’s infrastructure is in those millions upon millions of 10′ hoops.

    The meta-moral is that sports are complicated, in theory and practice, just like all other human endeavors, and that glib one-liner solutions from people not really invested in the problems-or, as with the NYT link, from people who insist that a problem exists because they’re looking for a reason to try a very specific “solution”-are rarely useful. (“I don’t see why the Israelis and Palestinians don’t just settle their differences at the negotiating table!” “If illegal immigration is a problem, let’s just build a dang fence!” “Your economy’s in trouble? Why, austerity and tax cuts are all you need!” “Your economy is booming? Why, austerity and tax cuts will keep you flying high!” Etc. etc.)

    1. Well, thanks for that welcome dose of reality. It does give the conversation an opportunity for a healthy pause. And, your analogies (especially the Palestinian/Israeli dance) did provoke a chuckle, or two, from this reader.

      I think a lot of the consternation, controversy, even anger, regarding the game of basketball is due to the fact that the changes that have taken place over the past decade or two were more cataclysmic than evolutionary. To many, myself included, basketball seems to have morphed from a choreographed “game,” played by fairly normal people, into a brute battle dominated by extra human Supermen.

      Of course, I’m speaking for myself only when I say I feel a sense of nostalgia for the beauty of the game when guys like Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, even “Magic” Johnson & Larry Bird ruled the roost. More and more, the days of an “average 6-footer,” with proper talent and conditioning, electrifying the crowd with his potpourri of honed weapons are fading into museum memorabilia.

    2. “The moral here is that infrastructure has an enormous amount of inertia,” Wow. True. And political infrastructure does, too. (Tax Code reform, anyone?)

      Which is why we can’t simply “switch from fossil-fuel energy production to renewable solar/wind/geothermal/nuclear energy production,” and we’re dooming humanity and the entire ecosystem with our obsolete energy-production infrastructure instead. Also why we must not build the KeystoneXL pipeline. We’ve got to stop investing in the wrong kind of infrastructure, especially with public funds.

  14. I think it’s a mistake to suppose that increasing the height of the hoop will reduce
    the relative advantage of tall players.

    One advantage of tall players is that they can shoot over a shorter player
    attempting to block them (or the shorter player is forced to jump to attempt
    the block, which gives a risk of being faked into jumping and fouling).
    That’s all to do with the relative height of the two players, not the
    absolute height of the basket, and moving the basket won’t change it.

    The other issue is that the ball travels a parabolic trajectory to the hoop,
    and the player with a higher release point is sending the ball on a shorter
    trajectory, and has a greater for margin of error in the direction and speed
    of the shot. Moving the hoop higher makes the shot harder for everyone,
    but I doubt that it reduces the disparity between short and tall players:
    it’s still a lot easier if you’re nearer to hoop height.

    1. Indeed, I suspect that raising the basket would put an even greater premium on height. With an eleven-foot high basket, taller players would have an even greater advantage in rebounding.

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