Which Rules are Real Rules?

Richard Hershberger

Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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67 Responses

  1. Kim says:

    Patriots are getting yelled at because they keep cheating. And I’m not sure that Brady’s four games is really a harsh punishment. Vick was off for at least a year…Report

  2. Mo says:

    So why is it so severe? Many claim that it is anti-Patriots bias. There certainly is Patriots-fatigue among that portion of football fans located outside New England, and Brady’s public persona is not notably winsome. So I won’t say that this isn’t part of it. But I think that we are, in some respects, in a more puritanical era than in past decades.

    It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up. Had an admission come right after it was discovered*, the punishment likely is a slap on the wrist. Once the NFL has to spend millions to investigate, the punishment goes up. Throw on top of that the fact that making an employee unavailable for a second interview with the independent investigator and Brady not cooperating with the investigation and you have more involved than just deflated balls. On top of that, you can add the recidivism multiple.

    * The Pats did not take this route, likely because of the small risk of losing Brady for the Superb OwlReport

    • Kazzy in reply to Mo says:

      This is what I find galling about the Pats’ response to the punishment. Things could have been MUCH worse for them — including Brady being suspended for the Super Bowl and losing picks this year with no time to appeal. But they weren’t. Likely because of Goodel/Kraft’s relationship. So Kraft going on the warpath — buying that ridiculous URL? Seriously? — smacks of the sort of petulance that has defined the Kraft/Belicheck era. They really don’t seem to think the rules apply to them.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to Kazzy says:

        Yeah. This isn’t at Penn State level, but it’s along the same spectrum.

        In college, losing four games almost certainly knocks you out of championship contention. In the NFL, you can still make the playoffs and Superbowl and Brady would be playing throughout. The worst that will happen is that they lose home field advantage, and this:


        • Richard Hershberger in reply to Will Truman says:

          It is nearly impossible to contrive a non-arbitrary college football championship system. There are too many teams, each playing too few games, and have been since John D. Rockefeller paid Amos Alonzo Stagg to move west and set up the football program at the University of Chicago.

          If I were God, I would set up a system with a tier hierarchy of divisions; with one division on top composed of a workable number of teams to set up a sensible championship system; and a promotion/relegation system between the various tiers. But it would take divine omnipotence to overcome the moneyed interests benefiting from the status quo.Report

        • Saul Degraw in reply to Will Truman says:

          That’s a lot of house!!!!Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Kazzy says:


        Kraft’s petulance is calculated. He’s a smart man, so at this point he knows his team cheated, but loyalty to the players, fans, organization, etcwhatnot, demands that he play the victim card. Player, fan, organizational, etcwhatnot loyalties are at stake.

        As for the NFL waiting game stuff, I’ve no doubt that the waiting (rather than swift justice!) was of a piece with what’s becoming the norm under Goodell’s “leadership”.Report

        • Kim in reply to Stillwater says:

          Steelers wouldn’t do that, for love or money.
          Of course, that IS part of their brand.

          The Penguins had a right royal pain in Matt Cooke (that, um, was his job description),
          but they cussed him until he learned to play without stepping over the lines and giving
          other players concussions.

          This is all about branding and making money. It’s NEVER for the fans.Report

        • Kazzy in reply to Stillwater says:


          It just seems unbecoming to get the sweetheart deal that the Pats have gotten recently from the League and then respond as they did. Biting the hand that feeds you, ya know? And given that Kraft insisted his team would be vindicated and then, when they weren’t, to call everything a sham? It just doesn’t look good. I get defending your organization and saving face, but I think he loses more cred than he gains. Especially now that he is not appealing the penalty. Basically, he is acknowledging that was all for show.Report

    • morat20 in reply to Mo says:

      We’re the Patriots already smacked on the wrist for something else? Videotaping something?

      In any case, I believe the NFL commission is seriously good friends with the owner of the Patriots — in short, prior to this, the belief was the Patriots could get away with anything because the NFL would cover for them.Report

  3. Glyph says:

    In a sense, ALL rules (or NO rules) are “real” rules when it comes to sports. Sports is little more than the construction and application of, at root, mostly-arbitrary rules (why is a football ovoid, rather than round? Why must I hit a baseball with a bat rather than with a racket? Why is a baseball diamond a diamond, and not another shape? Why three strikes and not five?) that have little to do with any outside referent.

    It is also inevitable that once there are rules, people will incorporate playing the rules *themselves* against their opponents for advantage (I will claim my minor contravention of the rule is meaningless, but yours should cost you the game).

    I agree that amphetamine use was at one time just so common in a lot of walks of life that it would shock us now.

    Also, I am a child, and “Merkle’s Boner” makes me giggle.Report

  4. greginak says:

    Just about anything involving the NFL and non game related rules is a cluster fish. They are disorganized and chase their tail more then anything else. They don’t have a policy and seem more focused on PR. Despite how harsh the punishment sounds it wasn’t sent down until after the draft this year. So they have plenty of time to fight it. Kraft and Goddell are close. Goddell may have wanted to avoid looking to much like Kraft’s lap doggie.Report

  5. DensityDuck says:

    “course, if the umps’re watchin’ me real close, ah jus’ rub a lil’ jalapeno up inside mah nose, get it runnin’ real good, then if ah need t’load th’ball up, jus’ (sniffff) wipe mah nose.”
    “You put snot on the ball?”
    “Haven’t got’n arm like yours, I gotta put anythin’ on it ah kin find. Someday, you will too.”Report

  6. Kazzy says:

    Nice piece. I think the issue tends to be as much about WHO is breaking the rules as what the rules are. Our views and analysis of sports are so dominated by narrative that is becomes increasingly difficult to debate the actual facts… despite the reality that most sports skew towards being very black and white in terms of rules and results. And this is where sports writers and their myriad biases are really, REALLY problematic. I believe Grantland had a great piece about Marshawn Lynch’s difficulty with the media during the Super Bowl runup wherein they interviewed a reporter who was simultaneously blatant and completely tone deaf about how he made the entire issue about himself and his profession. Sports writers are hugely influential in shaping public opinion and conventional wisdom. Unfortunately, this often yields the bullshit you outline above.

    Pro-Brady/Pats writers were undoubtedly going to be in his corner and anti-Brady/Pats writers were undoubtedly not. Rare is the writer who says, “I personally feel this way about the guy but in this situation I feel that way.” And, usually when they do, they make it all about themselves: “I was wrong. Yes. I’ll admit it. Yours truly was wrong… But I was also wronged.” Ugh.Report

  7. Stillwater says:

    Re: the first two rule violations mentioned:

    The Yankees bench coach (I think) had noticed the pine-tar-above-18-inches-on-the-bat rule violation atleast one, if not a couple, games previously and mentioned it right away to Martin, who cleverly said nothing to the umps at the time so’s to potentially use that info in a more advantageous way. I actually like that part of the story quite a bit (if I’m remembering it correctly.)

    Regarding the walk-off/tagged out stuff, I recall a playoff game a few years ago where the game was won on a final at-bat grand slam. ‘Cept in all the enthusiasm from winning the game and all the batter never got credited with hitting a home run since he didn’t touch home plate. Interesting…

    Re: deflate-gate, personally speaking I think the punishment for deflating footballs (given the advantages accrued by doing so) is probably justified, especially since that form of cheating – as opposed to video-taping practice sessions, for example – occurs directly on the field of play. The problem I have with it (which is sorta trivial given that I think the employees of the Patriots, certainly including Tom Brady, orchestrated the deflation) is that the only evidence of culpability is circumstantial. On the other hand, there is just no way that 11 of 12 balls were underinflated due to “normal game activities”.

    Regarding what constitutes a “real rule”: the G. Brett homerun strikes me as a good example of Martin manipulating a rule to effect an outcome which if not for the rule would have gone the other way. That is, the pine tar on GB’s bat didn’t help his performance on the field. Deflated footballs does.

    Course, these are just games and the only thing at stake is our (the fans) emotional states regarding the respective sports. Not a lot hangs on em one way or the other.Report

    • Richard Hershberger in reply to Stillwater says:

      My favorite part of the Pine Tar Incident is from when the game was resumed some weeks later, with a different umpire crew. Martin came out and appealed the home run on the claim that Brett hadn’t touched one or more of the bases. The umpires each turned down the appeal, prompting Martin to demand how they could possibly know that Brett had touched the base, since it had been different umpires at that time. It turned out that the original crew had each executed an affidavit attesting to Brett having touched the bag. Someone was thinking ahead. It was all Kabuki, but glorious in its own way.Report

    • Richard Hershberger in reply to Stillwater says:

      Regarding the evidence in deflategate being circumstantial, one bit that many reporters have missed is where it, like any good legal brief, discusses the standard of proof. By rule, it is a “preponderance of evidence.” This is a term of legal art. It is sometimes called the 51% rule. If it is 51% likely that they did it, then the standard of proof has been met to declare them culpable. This in turn explains why the report speaks in terms of “more likely than not.” The investigator does not give any assessment of how much more likely, because he wasn’t asked to give that assessment. He was asked if it is more likely than not that these people did this, and he answered that yes, it is indeed more likely than not. Any stronger statement would have been inappropriate editorializing. Circumstantial evidence can sufficient to meet this standard.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

        Ahh. Thanks for that. Ya know, when the “more likely than not” phrasing was first promulgated I was very curious about it for what turns out to be exactly the reasons you mentioned. It sounded like a colloquial phrase used in a very technical-language setting, and I didn’t know what the hell it actually meant. In legal-speak, that is. Thanks for clearing it up.Report

      • Don Zeko in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

        I do find it kind of fascinating how much overlap there is between the practice of law and sports officiating. My 1L writing professor told us that could see all of the core principles of legal analysis at work if we just turned on Monday Night Football and watched what happened when there was a disputed call.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Stillwater says:


      I believe the walk off grand slam single was by Todd Pratt of the Mets? The game was tied so his failing to round the bases didn’t ultimately matter since he did touch first and the winning run still scored. But it lt to the term walk off grand slam single.Report

      • Richard Hershberger in reply to Kazzy says:

        Prior to 1920 or so, a walk-off homerun (a very recent term, by the way) was scored as the minimum hit necessary to end the game. So if, for example, the score were tied in the bottom of the ninth, with the bases loaded, a ball hit over the fence was scored as a single, as this would force in the winning run. Were the home team down one run, that hit would be scored a double. There is a trivia question about Babe Ruth, the essence of which is that he had one of these walk-off non-homeruns, and so his career total would be 715 under modern scoring.

        For walk-off hits that don’t go over the fence, the rules are still very stingy. The batter only gets credited with as many bases as the runner who scored the winning run advanced. So in our tie game in the bottom of the ninth, suppose there is a man on third. The batter lines a ball into the right field corner, where it bounces around. This would be a double if he strolled nonchalantly down the basepath, and any self-respecting non-catcher or pitcher would figure on going for a triple. But it is scored merely as a single, since the guy who scored the winning run only advanced one base. Were that guy on second, it would be scored a double.Report

      • Mark Thompson in reply to Kazzy says:

        @kazzy So close – Pratt was the guy who got the walk to tie the game. Robin Ventura got the Grand Slam Single.Report

  8. Vikram Bath says:

    When I was a wee lad, I remember reading an article written by an NFL kicker. (Or maybe it was an interview. I think it was in Popular Mechanics.) He mentioned several interesting things, but one thing I remember him saying was that he made sure to tell the ball guys to give opposing kickers brand new footballs to kick. The balls he’d use to kick during home games, he would take home and microwave, massage, and otherwise beat up. At away games, he’d kick brand new footballs.

    I don’t remember whether he said anything about inflation specifically, but it certainly wasn’t a controversial article.Report

  9. DavidTC says:

    I’ve always found it technically interesting that, in the none of the game rules I’ve ever read, do they include obvious things like ‘No breaking the law’.

    So, apparently, I can beat a grandmaster at a timed chess game…all I have to do is wait until it’s his turn, pull out a gun, and threaten to kill him if he makes a move. Yes that is, legally, assault and kidnapping…but it also appears I just won the chess match if his time runs out before anyone can do anything about it.

    Incidentally, the NFL thing is so amazingly stupid. Why does the home team get to decide who gets what balls? Test them for correct pressure, put them in a bin, and have the umpires pull them out randomly. Sheesh, people, it’s not rocket science.Report

    • Kim in reply to DavidTC says:

      You’ve probably never signed a contract written partially in crayon either.

      Any serious game would include that in the rules. Few people play serious games, though.Report

    • Richard Hershberger in reply to DavidTC says:

      It’s not the home team. There are two sets of game balls, provided by both teams. (For real fun, have each team provide the set of balls the other side uses…) I believe that for many years the home team provided the balls. This would go back to the days when it was just one ball, and the league didn’t have money to buy postage stamps. In that context, the home team providing the ball makes sense. But yeah, nowadays it would make a lot more sense for the league to provide the balls, and for them to be prepared by a league employee. My guess is that we will be seeing this pretty soon.Report

    • Stillwater in reply to DavidTC says:

      Here’s the rules. Do you agree to abide by them?


      Good. Here’s the rules governing what you’ve agreed to when you agree to abide by the rules. To you agree to abide by these?


      OK. Here’s the rules governing what you agree to when you agreed to agree to the rules governing what you agreed were the rules you agreed to abide by. Do you agree to them?



  10. Evers, the Cubs second baseman, retrieved a ball, which might or might not have been the one that Bridwell had hit

    Given what we know about Evers, even if he’d known which ball was the right one, he’d have used another one.Report

  11. Autolukos says:

    Baseball conventional wisdom has strong anti-professionalization and anti-specialization undercurrents; I think a lot of the backlash against steroids has to do with them as a symbol of more regimented training regimes and one-dimensional power hitters. Amphetamines don’t really have the same connotations: they are a game-day enhancement that was never associated with the 90s home run races in the same way.

    I think this applies, to a significant extent, to the spitball, too: because there is so much lore from early baseball, it comes across as a throwback to amateurish players trying to pull out unconventional advantages.Report

  12. DensityDuck says:

    I’m reminded of the last play of that Seattle-Green Bay game of 2012, which apparently is called the Fail Mary, which I find very amusing.Report

    • Stillwater in reply to DensityDuck says:

      That’s controversy isn’t about the rules. It’s about officiating.Report

      • El Muneco in reply to Stillwater says:

        No, the controversy about the rules is whether, in last year’s divisional round Dallas-GB matchup, Dez Bryant made a “football move”, how many steps he took, when he had control, or whether any of that mattered. The ironic thing is that there is a rule on the books, the “Calvin Johnson” rule, that addresses the situation exactly, only no one is satisfied by the resolution.Report

        • Stillwater in reply to El Muneco says:

          El Muneco,

          Agreed. That was one of the worsest calls I’ve ever seen. Not only did Dez make a football move, he did exactly what he always does when he’s tackled close to the goal line: reach for the endzone. Turrible call.Report

  13. Slade the Leveller says:

    Surprised no one remembered the Brady tuck rule. The NFL is full of ridiculous interpretations of ordinary rules such as these. “Process of the catch” cost the Detroit Lions a playoff game against the Cowboys last season.

    Also, who remembers Greg Maddux’ strike zone, which was at least several inches outside the plate on either side?

    Finally, who can point to the last traveling call in an NBA game?

    Professional sports are exhibitions, with an outcome that may or may not be determined by the players.Report

    • I loved watching Maddux “negotiate” the strike zone with the home plate umpire early in the game, an inch at a time. I always wondered how many of them asked themselves later, “How the hell did I end up calling strikes that far off the plate?”Report

    • Kim in reply to Slade the Leveller says:

      Mindgames like that are kinda awesome, imnsho.Report

    • El Muneco in reply to Slade the Leveller says:

      It might not be exactly in Richard H’s bailiwick, but I think there’s a fascinating article (which might already exist for all I know) as to exactly how much of baseball’s rulebook exists specifically to keep King Kelly from exploiting what had previously been grey areas in the rules (wikipedia says his career was 1878-1893).Report

  14. Deflategate is much more like corking a bat than throwing a spitball: it’s tampering with equipment in secret, with no way to be caught except a careful examination. (Or, if you’re Sammy Sosa, the bat breaking open.) A spitballer has to be clever and subtle enough to doctor the ball in front of the umpires, the fans, and the other team, without getting caught in the act or making the result so obvious that he gets searched for the adulterant. That combination of guts and technique is what makes him a semi-heroic figure rather than a cheater.

    Also, baseball, more than any other sport, is about stories, and Gaylord was a master. In his book, he talks about when a reporter who’d come to his home managed to get his eight-year old daughter alone. “Does your Daddy have a special pitch he likes to throw?” he asked. The little girl responded “It’s a hard slider.”Report

  15. My father used to tell me stories about Grimes having a big chaw of tobacco and applying it liberally to the ball.

    If I were playing defense with that guy, I probably wouldn’t want to catch, throw, or otherwise handle that ball if it came to me. Of course, if my little league career is any indication, I wouldn’t want the ball ever to come to me in the first place, spit or no spit.Report

  16. Patrick says:

    I’m going to stay in the game but pop off the field for a second to bring in another angle to this excellent conversation.

    The 1994-1995 San Francisco 49ers were probably the single greatest both-sides-of-the-ball football team in history. They finished the season 13-3, with two of their losses coming in the first five games (when they had multiple starters out with injury) and the last loss coming in the last game of the season (where they were widely regarded as having just dialed it in, having already locked in home field advantage throughout the playoffs).

    I could quote stats chapter and verse to back up the “greatest” claim, but of course that’s still arguable on many levels, and it’s not really my point anyway.

    My point is that it *finally* came out officially (a long time thereafter) that team owner Eddie DeBartolo had been cheating his ass off. Officially recognized in 2000, but everybody knew it was probably likely all the way back when they signed Deion, in ’94.

    And yet nobody – not even the most rabid Rams fan I know down here in Los Angeles, has ever mentioned to me that the 49ers deserve an asterisk for that Superbowl win.

    And this is from the same crowd of fans who would never, ever consider it legitimate for Barry Bonds to be inducted in the MLB Hall of Fame (amusingly, you don’t hear too many of them gripe about the 107 saves that Eric Gagne racked up in 2002 and 2003, but that’s a side note.)

    Everybody who wasn’t a 49er fan or a Dallas Cowboys fan really didn’t like the Cowboys having Deion, so when the 49ers nabbed him (even if they were bending the rules while doing it) there was sort of a “Well, you took away one of that jerk’s star players, and that’s okay because that guy is a jerk anyway.”

    Plus it probably helped that the 49ers immediately lost their offensive coordinator to become the Packers’ head coach, and he proceeded to use his insider knowledge of the 49ers playbook to beat them pretty soundly in the next couple of years, so the 49ers didn’t exactly establish a long-standing *run* of getting an advantage by breaking the rules.

    So. I think persistence in advantage is probably a factor.

    I also think there’s a long standing feeling in sports fandom that certain rules are constraining and unnecessary, and there are certain rules that are necessary for the integrity of the sport, and that evaluation is based much more upon “do we think this really gives an unfair advantage over the other current teams that we like” than anything else. Sports fandom was split on whether or not the salary cap was good for football when it was introduced to football in the first place, so that probably contributed, just like the rules against the spitter, folks are more likely to give allowances to rules we’re not sure we like, just yet.Report

  17. Dave says:


    More specifically, why are ‘roids a huge deal while greenies are a non-issue? (Baseball has cracked down on amphetamines, but this is recent, and clearly out of embarrassment of the discrepancy.) Some people make a distinction between steroids as being performance enhancing drugs while amphetamines are merely performance enablers. The rest of us, including myself, think this smells of implausible post hoc rationalization.

    I’m truly surprised that people are puzzled by this. I kind of look at this from more of a strength training perspective.

    Anabolic steroids can enable an individual to produce physical adaptations to their body composition that are difficult if not impossible to produce naturally. Look at the East German female athletes or the stage at Mr. Olympia. Hell, Sammy Sosa put on how many pounds to get himself up to the size he was at when he hit 66 home runs? I’ve heard 60 lbs. Even if half of that is lean body mass, that’s an obscene amount to put on in the period of time he put that on (especially consider that most of his gains may have been in the off-season since I doubt we doing any kind of bulking in season).

    The addition of lean body mass combined with a proper training program will lead to increased strength. Those strength gains will impact game-day performance because of the way athletes are trained. So even a home run hitter argues that it’s the technique that carries the day, that same hitter is walking up to the plate carrying a base of power that was created unnaturally assuming steroids were involved. Obviously, strength means something or people like Sosa, McGwire, Bonds, etc. wouldn’t have gone to the lengths they did to use PEDs.

    This is a far cry from popping speed to increase alertness, no? Hell, even if amphetamines are banned, what’s to stop someone from popping a pre-workout supplement, an over-the-counter diet pill like Hydroxy Cut or a high dosage of caffeine coupled with something like L-tyrosine?

    I couldn’t care less about steroids in sports, but I see a big difference between the two examples here.Report

    • Glyph in reply to Dave says:

      @dave – I think this occurs for two reasons.

      1.) As I said, amphetamines simply used to be accepted, society-wide, in a way they are not now. “Drugs are bad” has been inculcated in our society for decades now, for reasons both good (speed addictions really ARE no fun) and bad (indiscriminate, exaggerated government propaganda for all illegal drugs). So now, ANY PED is, simply by virtue of having the word “drug” in it, seen as equally unfair to use.

      2.) Speaking personally as someone who doesn’t care much about sports, the difference between a drug that enhances muscle mass, and one that enhances cognition (in terms of alertness/focus/aggressive drive/reaction time) is irrelevant. If either one causes the player to be able to do things that other players who are not taking that PED can do, then he is getting an advantage.

      Of course, I have often said I might be more interested in sports, if they would lift ALL drug restrictions.

      I want to see mentally-addled giant mutants battling in MY gladiator pits. 😉Report