A basic fact of all sports is that rules change. Go back far enough, and even your favorite and most familiar pastime starts to look entirely different. Basketball is a great example of this, having changed substantially in the few short years after James Naismith strung up a pair of peach baskets. In fact, even as late as 1995 in Oklahoma, women’s basketball was played with six players a side. Nothing is permanent, and perhaps no rule is so sacred that ten years from now it will still be there.
So, if you had the ultimate power to rewrite the rulebook, what would you do?
Now before you get too excited, I’m going to throw in one little caveat. You can only change one rule per sport, because it has to remain identifiably the same sport. You can’t just make a soccer ball oval and allow people to use their hands and wear helmets, because then it’s not soccer, it’s football.
As for me? Ok, there is no point sticking to safe territory here, so first I’m going to go straight for some major American ones before turning my attention back to more familiar ground.
Hockey: ban players for fighting. Don’t just sin-bin them, eject them from the game and bar them from the next one. Unlike in martial arts, you don’t get points for hitting each other, so why sit by and let this distract from real displays of skill?
Baseball: get rid of the glove. I’ve said this before, but I just don’t get why players need it to catch a ball. To an unfamiliar observer it just looks like a comedy prop; it would be the same as a football kicker taking the field with one giant shoe. However, this single rule has such a big effect on the sport that I’m not sure I can do this one. Without the glove, baseball simply wouldn’t be baseball. The ball would become far harder to catch and the batting team would score far more runs. It might even become impossible to finish nine innings in a single day.
Football: cut the time between plays. I can’t be the only person whose attention has drifted away from an otherwise thrilling game during the half-minute break between downs, or who gets frustrated when teams kneel down instead of playing to kill the last couple of minutes of a game. I don’t doubt that football players are athletes, so I don’t see why they need so much time to recover between plays.
Soccer: bring in technology to assist referees. Every major soccer competition is blighted by terrible refereeing errors that can have a major impact on results and lead to intense vitriol directed at officials. It’s such an obvious solution to most soccer fans–to them, it’s a complete mystery as to why the sport’s governing bodies are so reluctant to consider using the sort of technology that is widely and successfully used in most other big sports.
Tennis: ban players from grunting. Being able to hear the sound of ball-on-racket is one of the reasons the crowd at a tennis match is supposed to keep quiet, because it gives the opposing player extra information about the shot heading their way. In that light, shouting while playing a shot is effectively cheating. Some players quite credibly emit grunts of exhaustion towards the end of a long rally, but others scream loudly even when hitting a gentle drop shot. If the players are allowed to make so much noise, I don’t see why the fans can’t.
Formula 1: keep the rules the same. The official rules of this sport literally change every single year, making it increasingly hard to be a fan. Each season the teams struggle to build legal cars, since they almost certainly won’t be able to use last year’s, and even the governing body struggles to enforce rules that are in almost constant flux. This doesn’t make the sport more exciting, it just makes it confusing, and it guarantees that the best teams are the ones with the most money to spend testing the boundaries of each new set of rules.
Track and Field: allow all starts that are after the gun. Many runners have gotten into trouble for making false starts because they moved too quickly after the sound of the starting pistol. There may well be a human limit on how quickly someone reacts, but this limit is likely to be different from person to person. If you were to enforce this properly then you would have to measure the reaction times of each runner and use these figures, not some kind of average lower limit, to ensure no one has reacted quicker than they legitimately can.
I’m not sure if there is such a thing as a quick fix, or whether you agree with any of my ideas, and I’m absolutely certain that no one with any real power will be reading this column. But if someone out there is listening to me, what would you do?
Tom Taylor has plenty of experience in rewriting rulebooks, having recently written his own, entitled Tommy’s Tenets of Athletic Comportment. To order an advance copy or petition for your own rule to be included in the appendix, contact him at tom.taylor “at” stanford.edu.