Don't 'fix' sports by making teams play stupid

On the misguided obsession with stifling innovation to make games "better"

Nebraska guard Shavon Shields looks to the referee for a ruling.
(Image credit: (AP Photo/Nati Harnik))

Basketball has a problem: It's boring. Too many fouls — especially intentional fouls on brick-heaving big men — are sapping the sport of its athletic flow and beauty.

Or at least, that's what myopic grousers seem to believe.

Similarly, worrywarts fear that newfangled defensive shifts are killing baseball, that roaming goalies threaten hockey's health, and that college hoops defenses are so good they're bad for the game. The complaints nitpick disparate facets of disparate sports, but they boil down to a central qualm: Games grew stale as players, coaches, and teams adapted in search of an extra edge.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

The "solutions" to these manufactured crises are often drastic rule changes that stifle innovation with short-sighted band-aids. Rather than allow further innovation to level the playing field, they seek immediate resolution by diktat — a notion that runs counter to the very idea of competition.

I understand the impulse. Sports are supposed to entertain. Otherwise, why would we watch? But entertainment value should not come at the expense of strategy. Winning is the primary aim of sports, but knee-jerk attempts to rewrite the rules would, wittingly or not, punish those who've moved their sports forward while striving for victory.

In an illuminating case, the NHL instituted a new rule after the 2004-05 season banning goalies from handling the puck behind the net when outside of a newly painted trapezoid. Aimed at increasing scoring, the change came largely in response to the unconventional — though legal — play of a single goalie, Martin Brodeur, who wandered from his crease to snuff out the game's prevailing "dump and chase" offense.

It was a boneheaded decision. Advanced analytics suggest dump and chase is an inefficient tactic, meaning the "Brodeur rule" reinforced poor play — the exact opposite of its intended goal.

Innovation allows sports to grow in positive ways. Consider football, which was a deadly, run-only game into the early 1900s until Pop Warner (yes, he was a real guy) came along. Coaching fleet-footed undersized teams, Warner devised trick plays and developed new offenses that embraced passing. Sure, some of his schemes bent the rules — like hiding footballs inside elastic bands sewn into players' jerseys. But his tactical creativity begot the modern passing NFL.

Or how about basketball, which saw a decades-long campaign to raise rims to mitigate dunking. The NCAA even banned slams for a few years, allegedly because Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was too dominant. Imagine an NBA without its most exciting play, where this kind of highlight reel didn't exist:

These concerns are often unfounded or overblown, too.

Free throws are "the basketball equivalent of paperwork," Colin McGowan wrote recently in Vice, lamenting that Rockets guard James Harden's knack for drawing fouls was "great basketball, but only technically." (Analytics loves Harden's ability to get to the line.) Except that there is no free throw scourge in basketball. This season, teams are averaging 22.9 foul shots per game, the third-lowest mark in the history of the NBA. The two years prior rank fourth-lowest and lowest, respectively.

The same is true in baseball, where commissioner Rob Manfred is open to banning the defensive shifts forward-thinking teams are using with greater frequency to stymie predictable hitters. As many others have rightly pointed out, shifts are a scapegoat for baseball's recent offensive woes. A surging strikeout rate, plus more rigid PED testing, are more likely culprits.

That's not to say drastic rules changes are always unwelcome. In the early days of college basketball, stalling could be an effective technique. In an infamous 1968 ACC Tournament game, NC State topped Duke 12-10 after the Wolfpack loafed around in a deliberate attempt to reduce the number of possessions. One Wolfpack player dribbled for almost 14 minutes straight, a ref took a seat, and players chatted under the hoop. It would take two more decades, but the NCAA would finally implement a shot clock to eliminate such egregious stalling.

Still, there are plenty of ways to address modern qualms without snuffing out tactical advancement. Baseball could instruct umpires to call tighter strike zones like they used to do. College basketball could widen the lane to unclog the paint, or adopt any of the other worthy ideas Seth Davis suggested in Sports Illustrated. The NHL, by simply asking referees to crack down on defensive interference, saw a 20 percent spike in scoring, as Ben McGrath noted in The New Yorker.

Those sorts of modest tweaks can have the same remedial effects without punishing savvy trailblazers. Leagues should take note: Smart innovation deserves more than dumb solutions.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.