Monday, December 19, 2011

Some Rules are meant to be Broken (or, Playing by Some of the Rules)

I suppose it should have been a job for Captain Obvious that part of team sports strategy – and a successful one - is intentional violation of rules in order to gain an advantage over the opponent.

I was under the mistaken impression that rules in a game were meant to be followed.

I’ve consulted with my in-house expert (my husband, the sports fanatic and jock) and he explained this universally applied strategy as it pertains to basketball.

For the first five minutes of the game, the players’ job is to scope out the officiating referees, see what fouls they call and what the players can get away with.

Then they play the game accordingly, getting away with what they can.

This can include moving screens, hip checks, holding in the key, among other strange terminology my in-house expert rattled off quickly, and which I could research more if I were really interested.

Of course, officials will call some of them, a number of them, but with enough infrequency to make the effort pay off.

The closest analogy I can think of is that competitive game of commuter traffic.  Drivers racing to get to work will speed, not come to a complete stop, make an illegal turn, etc., so they can beat everyone else to work, but only if they deem it unlikely that they’ll get caught by police.  This is not behavior I endorse, of course.

I’ve been impressed with the acting ability of some basketball players, who, after committing some foul, looked shocked and indignant that the referee even thought them guilty.  I’ve also been awed by the “flopping” players (eulogized outside sports in This American Life in a 2010 story,“Crybabies”), who could consider a second career in Hollywood, as they didtheir best to draw referees’ attention to real or imagined fouls.

On a side note, although Shaquille O’Neal does not have the reputation to be a flopper, I’m glad that for the most part that he kept his day job rather than pursue a more earnest career in acting (his role in Kazaam is illuminating).  He did humanity a great favor.

Of course, I have to mention a famous quote of his (but would I know of it if my husband wasn’t a sports fanatic?): when asked if he visited the Parthenon during a visit to Greece, O’Neal reportedly said, “I can’t really remember the names of the clubs that we went to.”

Interestingly, the rule-breaking strategy changes when it’s pick-up basketball, which is self-refereed.  In pick-up basketball, the player calls his/her own fouls, and the unspoken, ingrained code is to call judiciously, sparingly.  If the player calls fouls for all but the hard ones, the ones that can or already did do physical damage, the player may be perceived as, basically, a loser, and no one will want to play with him/her anymore.  The overall consequence is that pick-up basketball is very rough, very physical compared to a refereed game.  More rules are broken, and with more regularity.

Pick-up basketball is similar to what commuter traffic would be like without any police enforcement.

I would go so far as to say that the game of basketball expects players to bend or break rules (I don’t think this would surprise anyone), and its system of counting fouls, implementing penalties to the team a means of both allowing them and providing rational consequences.  On the whole, an individual “personal” foul costs a lot less than a speeding ticket.

While the unwritten sportsmanship code also expects and endorses some rule-bending and breaking, my expert emphasized that flagrant (i.e., high risk for causing injury to others) are not considered proper basketball etiquette.  Aside from physical dangers they may incur, as far as I can tell they convey no further advantage to the performance of the player or his/her team.  Players who regularly engage in this type of behavior are looked upon more as a liability.

My husband has a gruesome story about retinal detachment and having his orbital bone chipped during pick-up basketball.  That was a flagrant foul.

So I think it’s safe to say that the rules about rules in competitive teams sports like basketball are a lot more complicated than, say, a board game like Monopoly, though perhaps one of my young nieces would disagree.

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