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[William Birdthistle, guest-blogging, May 18, 2007 at 10:56am] Trackbacks
Sporting Sclerosis:

Any discussion of sport and law that grasps for comprehensiveness should consider what the two fields have to teach one another. The premise of such a consideration is, of course, that the two fields are separate, a claim that appears to grow ever more dubious. Rarely if ever will a season of professional sports pass by without the appearance of criminal allegations, contractual disputes, accusations of assault, claims of self-defense, defense of teammates, &c.

Witness this week's debate of rules versus standards in the Suns-Spurs series, in which David Stern vigorously defended the suspension of two of Phoenix's more important players for leaving their bench during an altercation. After parsing what an altercation was (do handbags count?), considering what the bench area is (they took just a few steps), and debating what leaving entails (one player claimed he was just heading to the scorer's table to check in), the league disqualified Stoudemire and Diaw from the subsequent game, which Phoenix duly lost.

Stern abdicated responsibility for the judgment, claiming that the rule is clear. Of course, as Bill Simmons has pointed out, this position ignores the league's responsibility for the rule in the first place. And while rules are always easier to administer than standards, one feels compelled to ask Mr. Stern whether the league and its employees receive generous compensation precisely because they are expected to make the difficult decisions. Perhaps there's a lesson here that soccer may not prosper from more rules and should instead leave a decent amount of discretion in the hands of its officials.

If the path of the law has anything to teach sports, it might be to turn around. Sports appear to be following legal fields such as corporate law and securities regulation along an unswerving route towards ever-greater regulation. Sarbanes-Oxley and new investment company rules have recently added significant layers of regulation to the management of public corporations and mutual funds. Similarly, American sports have just added new rules on such critical issues as what players can wear off the court. Things certainly appear to have gone too far when the FIFA's rules manual now includes this helpful interpretive guide:

Perhaps we need to institute a pay-as-you-go requirement, which would permit new rules in sports only when a corresponding number of existing ones have been retired.

I wonder, though, whether this is another area of cultural divergence. In sports such as soccer and rugby, in which the game is intended to be free-flowing with relatively few mandated stoppages, the addition of rules is antithetical to the style of the sport. In baseball and football, however, aficionados often take great delight in knowing the most arcane rules of interpretation. Since those games stop every few seconds anyway, their overall aesthetic is not significantly altered by adding new rules — the mastery of which only serves to enhance the sense of expertise its fans feel.

Perhaps, perhaps not. It just reminds me of a uniquely American trait to scientificalize things where possible. E.g., in the British Isles, someone who has a headache will typically ask for a "tablet"; in the United States, patients will consider the merits of acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen, &c.

What, then, lies ahead for the study of sports and the law? One of the biggest questions that arises whenever a new proposal emerges is "what will this do?" So perhaps the future of academic inquiry in this area will involve the increasing use of econometric and statistical analyses, such as the much-discussed study of NBA referees' own-race biases by Justin Wolfers.

For my own part, I'd enjoy looking into the handball rule. Players everywhere seem to believe that the offense has two, independent elements: a subjective scienter requirement plus an objective notion of benefit. Whenever the ball actually hits players' hands, then, they invariably claim either that they did not intend to do it, or that they did not actually get any advantage from it, depending on which account the facts seem most likely to support. Just like the good lawyers and politicians they are, handballers strive mightily to massage away the bad facts.

Peter Young (mail):
Many, many thanks, Professor Birdthistle, for your efforts this week. They've been provocative and entertaining, to both those new to the game and to those who have been around it a while. I hope you'll continue to write about the beautiful game. Rushed and comments on your latest post will have to wait.
5.18.2007 3:50pm
Sean M:
What's interesting, though, is how soccer rules are relatively few in relation to other American sports. There are only 17 Laws, each of which barely takes up a page or so (or less, depending on the Law). Experience, tradition, and training fill in so many of the "unwritten" rules.

For example, consider the "rule" that jerseys must have sleeves. It's nowhere found in Law 4, but it's "just known" by so many. USSF has had to publish 'Advice to Referees' to bring these other "laws" to US refs.

So while retiring rules is a good idea to prevent an explosion of rules, soccer seems to have the opposite problem. It has /too little/ clearly spelled out, and "tradition" covers the rest.
5.18.2007 5:17pm
Richard A. (mail):
I've never understood why soccer players aren't allowed to use their hands. It would make the whole thing so much simpler.
5.18.2007 5:35pm
Mark Field (mail):

So while retiring rules is a good idea to prevent an explosion of rules, soccer seems to have the opposite problem. It has /too little/ clearly spelled out, and "tradition" covers the rest.


I guess that's what we should expect from a country with a common law legal tradition. No wonder all those countries with a Napoleonic Code think diving is permitted. :)
5.18.2007 5:43pm
Joshua:
I've never understood why soccer players aren't allowed to use their hands. It would make the whole thing so much simpler.

But then it wouldn't be football any more, now, would it?

Oh, wait...
5.18.2007 7:24pm
Peter Young (mail):
There are only 17 Laws, each of which barely takes up a page or so (or less, depending on the Law). Experience, tradition, and training fill in so many of the "unwritten" rules.

It's true that experience, tradition and training fill in a lot. But it's also true that a lot of the rules and regulations not found in the Laws are written. You can find them on the FIFA website. There are pronouncements from the International Football Association Board and all kinds of clarifications and interpretations of the laws from FIFA that are in written form. There are also long documents setting down rules and regulations for things not covered in the Laws, like the transfers of players and the eligibility of players.

I have to say that they are nearly all poorly written and some are even barely intelligible. And they are poorly organized.
5.18.2007 10:03pm
Malvolio:
Is there really a difference between a "standard" and a "vague, difficult-to-understand rule"?

Yes, it is often difficult to craft rules that apply crisply in a broad range of circumstances -- but it is necessary. The alternative is a situation where no participant knows what is expected of him and no official are invited, essentially required, to behave in an arbitrary or even corrupt fashion.
5.19.2007 1:41am
Mark Field (mail):

For my own part, I'd enjoy looking into the handball rule.


All the publicity given recently to diving indicates a very defense-oriented way of looking at the game. Defenders, of course, regularly violate the laws in various surreptitious ways, including grabbing the jerseys and handballs. These tactics don't seem to generate the outrage that we hear when forwards adopt counter-strategies such as diving. Any evaluation of the rules should, it seems to me, consider the overall balance of the game, not just the specific activity.
5.19.2007 2:48pm
Peter Young (mail):
All the publicity given recently to diving indicates a very defense-oriented way of looking at the game. Defenders, of course, regularly violate the laws in various surreptitious ways, including grabbing the jerseys and handballs. These tactics don't seem to generate the outrage that we hear when forwards adopt counter-strategies such as diving. Any evaluation of the rules should, it seems to me, consider the overall balance of the game, not just the specific activity.

I'm partly speculating here, trying to provide reasons for your observation.

Your comment parallels some of the observations made on that exchange over at Rec.Sport.Soccer that I cited in response to an earlier post as demonstrating cultural differences in the game. The Latin fans in that exchange made the same point; why weren't fans from countries sharing a Northern European culture more outraged by the physical violence of defenders than by the relatively petty offenses of forwards in diving and faking injury.

Diving and pretending to be injured by writhing on the ground draw the most outrage precisely where they are regarded as cheating in a particularly unmanly fashion by the predominant culture. Perhaps it's also a measure of the fame of the offenders; some of the most famous forwards and midfielders in the world do it. Shirt-pulling is done primarily by defenders and they aren't generally as glamorous or as famous as the mdifielders and forwards. And shirt-pulling simply isn't as dramatic as diving and pretend writhing.

But don't forget that a tremendous amount has been done since 1990 to curb defenders in ways that greatly favor attacking players. The pass-back to the goalkeeper is gone. The offside law has been interpreted in favor of the attacking players; players even with a defender are not offside and offside players not interfering with play are not whistled for offside. The tackle from behind, two-footed tackles, the sliding tackle, virtually all tackles that involve physical contact with the attacking player are outlawed now. I think physical fouls have been largely curbed, at least compared to 20 years ago.

A much larger percentage of fouls now involve surreptition. The emphasis on diving and other pretenses is merely an effort to redress this situation. I agree that shirt-pulling, another form of surreptitious foul, should get equal attention.
5.19.2007 9:54pm
Mongoose388:


I guess Brandi got a lifetime suspension for this...
5.20.2007 12:41am
GaMongrel (mail) (www):
"But don't forget that a tremendous amount has been done since 1990 to curb defenders in ways that greatly favor attacking players. The pass-back to the goalkeeper is gone. The offside law has been interpreted in favor of the attacking players; players even with a defender are not offside and offside players not interfering with play are not whistled for offside. The tackle from behind, two-footed tackles, the sliding tackle, virtually all tackles that involve physical contact with the attacking player are outlawed now. I think physical fouls have been largely curbed, at least compared to 20 years ago."


I agree that things in the rules have changed, but in practice? Not much has changed.. and the game is worse for it.

Cynical defending involving slide tackles guaranteed to take the player down (ie, the scissor tackle from behind) routinely go unpunished - yes the foul is often called, but rarely a card for what was an intentional and potentially dangerous tackle. Yup, they're out"lawed."

Offside? Please - way too often ARs forget the change and when in doubt they raise the flag. 'Even' is still not onside I fear.

I'm not sure how much the physical side of the game has truly been curbed, despite the tools that are there. It needs to change(and this coming from a lifelong defensman).

I find it utterly ironic (and almost incomprehensible) that the machismo latin cultures embrace the dive. Would have expected that to have gone the other way. *BUT*, I think the latins play just as physically dirty as everyone else - just watch any Mexico-US match. Heck, any "latin" vs. US match.
5.22.2007 4:50pm