Thursday, November 21, 2013

Changing the Rules Is Not A Violation of the State of Nature (Football Edition)

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

For the last few months, I have gotten into the habit of watching "Mike & Mike in the Morning," a sports talk radio show on ESPN2.  Unlike almost all of the other sports talk shows, that show features reasonable discussions by knowledgeable people about interesting questions.  There is no contrived controversy (except when they are being very obvious about their contrivance, allowing the audience to be in on the joke), and there is very little mindless tough-guy talk.

The show has handled almost every major topic quite well, with the hosts (Mike Greenberg, a sports reporter now in his 40's, and Mike Golic, a former NFL defensive end who recently turned 50) taking informed positions -- often the same position, because they do not feel compelled to gin up controversy -- while also being willing to present contrary evidence and arguments, and to engage in serious conversations with guests whose views differ.  Their recent handling of the Martin-Incognito bullying allegations has been exemplary, as was their treatment this morning of the developments regarding a sexual assault allegation against the quarterback for Florida State.

The show has, however, fallen down significantly regarding two issues.  The first is an extended series of jokes mocking veganism.  I might discuss that issue more in a future post, but here I will only say that it is beneath them.  They know better, yet they are gleefully engaging in a display of ignorance that should embarrass and shame them.  The second issue is the recent changes to NFL rules that are designed to reduce injuries to offensive players, especially quarterbacks.  There, the discussion has been bizarre and simply wrong, but in a surprisingly interesting way.

The reason that I find rules changes in sports interesting is that they provide such a clear analogy to changes in the rules that govern the economy, and society in general.  As I have discussed many times on Dorf on Law (see, e.g., here and here), standard economic analysis founders on "the baseline problem" (note: this is not a basketball reference), which is the simple observation that there is no "natural" set of rules to govern society.  If you change, say, patent laws so that inventions are easier to protect from competition than they currently are, there is no legitimate way to decide whether the old rules or the new rules are the correct baseline, with all other rules counting as deviations from that baseline.  This makes it pointless to discuss, most prominently, whether legal changes are "pareto-efficient," because you can only describe what is inefficient by comparing it to some arbitrary baseline that you have deemed "correct" in some sense.

This argument is often difficult to comprehend in society at large, because there are so many moving parts to the legal system and the economy, and because people have so many unexamined assumptions about what should be included in the baseline.  Therefore, when I teach this concept in my classes, I almost always refer to some sport or other game to illustrate the point.  If tennis, for example, did not allow second serves after a "fault," then the game would be different, because servers would have to be more careful.  There is nothing right or wrong about either rule.  That the current game allows a second serve is simply a historical baseline, but not a logical one.  [NOTE: I have corrected the third sentence in this paragraph, which begins "If tennis ... ," to reflect my intended meaning.  I had misused the word "let" in the originally published version of this post.]

What I find funny about the current debate about the NFL's safety initiative is how nutty so many people have become in discussing it.  I do not find it surprising when, for example, Mike Ditka says silly stuff about injuries being "just football."  What I do find interesting is how many current and former defensive players are somehow viewing the rules changes as utterly illegitimate, making it "impossible to play defense."  (The most ridiculous of these statements came from the recently retired Ray Lewis, who not only complained about the new rules, but he actually screamed that the league needs to respect the players' "manhood."  He is an embarrassment, at best, but that example is hardly his greatest sin.)

This meme, that the defense is being harmed by rules changes, has been a recurring complaint from Mike Golic over the years, and he is especially incensed now.  In a way, I understand how much he takes it all personally.  He is evidently thinking, "Gee, when I played, a lot of what I did would have been penalized under the new rules.  But I wasn't a dirty player, so there's something wrong with the new rules."  His argument, however, perfectly captures the failure to think about the arbitrary nature of the rules of the game.

For example, he once argued that a rule change made it "harder to do my job."  Well, yes and no.  If his "job" is to sack the quarterback, then many rules make it harder for him to do his job.  He cannot grab the offensive lineman by the face mask, twist it, and thrown the man to the ground.  He cannot kick other players, or gouge their eyes with his fingers.  He cannot slap opponents' helmets to disorient them.  (Note that some of these examples were "just football plays" back in the day.)  If a new rule increases the likelihood that a defender will be flagged and fined for a now-illegal hit on a quarterback, then Golic's job really is more difficult.

Of course, there are plenty of rules that make it harder than it could be for offensive players to do their jobs.  They, too, cannot grab face masks.  (Need I mention that nobody is allowed to carry a gun?  That, too, is a rule that could be changed.)  They can be flagged for "holding," with the definition of holding itself changing over the years.  They cannot engage in a "crack-back block," which was an especially dangerous type of block that ended many, many defensive players' careers due to knee injuries.

When the rules are changed in a way that seems to favor the offense, that requires all players to adjust.  If Golic were playing today, he would not do what he used to do.  He would have to do things differently, and he would.  I can see why he might say that the adjustment is too difficult, or that the fines seem too large to him, but the idea that the rules changes are fundamentally unfair is simply bizarre.  Even Mike Greenberg, who never played, actually made the claim on yesterday's show that the playing field used to be even between offense and defense, but it has now become tilted against the defense.  (He even illustrated the tilting with hand gestures.)

There is no question that the defensive players now need to adjust to the new rules.  But it is beyond absurd to say that the playing field is unfairly tilted against the defense, or that the defenders can no longer "do their jobs."  Their jobs, after all, are to play within the rules to prevent the other team from scoring.  Well into the 1990's, players like Deion Sanders were applauded when they would "clothesline" other players.  The vaunted Chicago Bears defense on their 1985 Super Bowl team included two defensive backs who bragged about blindsiding offensive players when the referees were not looking, referring to their activity as "head-hunting" and "just having fun, when the game got out of hand."  Golic himself has talked about the mayhem that ensued when there was a turnover, and defensive players would target offensive players for vicious hits.

The point is that both teams in every game field a defense and an offense.  So long as the rules are enforced evenly, the playing field is not tilted.  To his great credit, former NFL coach Tony Dungy made this point -- finally! -- on this morning's show.   (And to their credit, Mike and Mike did not mock him.)  It is a different set of rules, which defensive players do not like, because their usual way of doing things is changing.  So be it.  Back in the 1970's, when some rule changes were instituted to protect quarterbacks, the Steelers' linebacker Jack Lambert groused, "Why don't we just put skirts on 'em?"  One expects a certain caveman element in the league, I suppose, but there is no reason to take this whining seriously.

Of course, there is a gray area where rule changes could completely change a game.  If the NFL switched to a round ball, and points were scored by putting the ball through a hoop, then it would not look like football anymore.  Mark Schlereth, the former offensive lineman, argued today that the NFL's rule changes could soon lead to an NFL team qualifying for the World Cup, a humorous way to say that the essence of the game is its inherent violence and risk of injury to the players.  Based on where we are, however, that slope looks neither slippery nor steep (nor short).  At least Schlereth, however, is making a plausible argument.

Yes, changing the rules changes the way the game is played.  That is the point.  Changing the rules does not make it harder for defensive players to "make a living," because there will still be people paid to play defense, even under the new rules.  If the NFL changed the rules so that offensive teams were given three downs to go ten yards (or 5 downs to go 20 yards, or whatever), the game would change.  In a league where players are still lost for the season nearly every week due to serious injuries, we are a long way from a time when football looks like ballroom dancing.

Even people who disagree with me about the current state of affairs, however, should at least get a grip and understand that what they are arguing about is not a violation of some natural God-given baseline, but simply humans adjusting the rules in an effort to reduce the carnage of a game that has become ever more dangerous, even as the rules have changed to protect the players from the worst kinds of injuries.


Shag from Brookline said...

And the Senate can be even rougher with its offensive defensive rules, including filibuster, permitting the minority to misuse the rules. So it's time for Harry Reid to throw down the flag (aka the nuclear bomb).

Michael C. Dorf said...

Neil, I largely agree with what you have to say, but perhaps you want to rethink your position because it is more or less the same as Justice Scalia's in dissent in PGA v. Martin????

Paul Scott said...

I agree with much of the above, but think the idea on the baseline is wrong. I think in general, but certainly in sport. Rule changes, even minor one, change the nature of the game. This is because as soon as the rules change you cannot effectively compare a team or a player in year x to the team or player in year x+.

If your only point is that there is no "natural law" of football, then I agree. The rules are all arbitrary - including the size and shape of the ball - other than from an historical view (though I think there is something to the idea that natural law is just an historical accounting).

However, at least in the context of sport, the Mikes are correct in saying that the new rules make it "impossible to play defense" in that everything that came before - that set the standard for what it is to be "good" has now been made irrelevant (or at least reduced in meaning). This is particularly true now as over the last decade a form of statistical analysis that has its origins in baseball has come to dominate good statistical analysis in football as well (and contrary to your suggestion in line two of this blog post, is not to be found on "Mike and Mike in the Morning").

This does not mean that the rule should be opposed; it just means that (ignoring the testosterone flow) there is quite a bit more to the Mikes' position that defense is now "impossible to play" than you are giving credit.

An appropriate baseline, thus, is whatever are the current rules. Change itself, regardless of the original arbitrariness of the rules, is a change to the nature of the game. For most observers, the game will be so altered as to be no longer recognizable as football, but that does not mean that the game has not significantly changed to the point where defense is now "impossible to play."

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Yikes! Not only did Scalia make the same argument that I did, but he even used the "round ball into a hoop" example (although starting from a different sport). Mike is right that I'm uncomfortable being so close to Scalia. I do think it's easy enough to come out the opposite way in PGA v. Martin, even if one takes my/Scalia's view re arbitrary rules, but that is more than I want to take on today.

Reading that Scalia dissent also brought a smile to my face for a different reason. At one point, Scalia goes into one of his standard spiels where he mocks a litigant's argument, saying that it is "a line of reasoning that does not commend itself to the untutored intellect." While I realize that the misplaced "not" in that phrase (or the inapt prefix "un-") is simply an oversight, Scalia invites harsh scrutiny by being so consistently nasty. Maybe he needed an accommodation for his inability to hold his sarcastic bile.

Paul Scott said...

well, owing to blogger's refusal to allow edits - I'll need to borrow Scalia's extra "not."

The Dismal Political Economist said...

This seemingly rather innocuous post by Mr. Buchanan has now gained tremendous relevance with the action of the Senate in changing the filibuster rules to allow majority approval of presidential nominees. Analogous to his description of the defensive players complaining the game has changed and they can no longer do their jobs is the equally untrue rant of Republicans who claim, in the words of John McCain (who should no better and probably does) that “Now there are no rules in the United States Senate,”.

As with football, there is no baseline for the use of the filibuster, or any other Senate rules not specified in the Constitution. The filibuster itself was neither correct nor incorrect, it was simply a rule that the Senate adopted and is free to change for whatever reason it wishes, including no reason at all (which was not the case here).

Finally, lest commentators raise the point like Senator McConnell did that Democrats will regret this action, implying that when Republicans control both the Senate and the Presidency they will run roughshod over the Democrats the response is simple. Democrats, if you do not want that then deal with the issue the way God, the Constitution and democratic governments everywhere intended you to deal with this. Win elections. Really, it’s that simple.

John Q. Barrett said...

I'm not a tennis guy and this is a tangent, but doesn't the "let" rule hurt, not help, servers?--without it, they'd generally win lucky dink-in serves, and with it the returner gets another chance.

Michael said...

Ugh, Mike & Mike? This might be a generation thing, but give Van Pelt & Russillo a shot. I admit, they've taken a somewhat less evolved position on Martin & Incognito (not egregiously so, though), but it is honestly head and shoulders above any other ESPN content.

Alex said...

Re: defensive player's ability to make a living unchanged.

I am not sure I agree with your argument regarding how rule changes, when applied to all teams evenly, do not affect a defensive player's ability to make money (you argue that teams still need to employ just as many players.)

Teams have a finite amount of money to allocate between the offense and the defense, and altering the rules in a way that restricts defensive "playmaking ability" will result in more money being allocated for offensive players. Salaries are not simply functions of who is the best at a specific position. The best right guards, for instance, do not make nearly as much money as even bad quarterbacks.

Moreover, players are specialized to their roles. You might envision that a defensive coordinator, understanding the new perils of aggressively pursuing the quarterback, might choose instead to drop more players into coverage. Now, players who built their careers towards perfecting the pass rush will not be as valuable.

Of course, this does not mean the league should not change. But presenting this issue as one that is pointless to argue because of a baseline-identification problem I think misses the mark. Certain players ARE affected by the rule. If their losses cannot be justified by the gains from the rule change, then I think it is OK to say that the rule change IS bad.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Thanks for the many good comments. The comments by Shag from Brookline and TDPE helped to inspire my next post, to be published on Monday. Alex's comment previews yet another planned post that I will write soon, and his analysis is strikingly similar to where I was planning to begin that post.

I don't contest Michael's point that Mike&Mike is not for everyone. Rather than try another show, however, my more likely path is simply to stop watching entirely. I used to watch "Pardon the Interruption" until it became simply execrable. I then went for about three years without watching any of those shows. I'm now hitting the point where I need another long break.

Re John Q. Barrett's question, I have always assumed that the "let" rule gives a huge advantage to the big hitters. You have essentially a free shot at an ace, and if you miss, you then make a returnable serve. I guess the dink-in serve is a possibility, but I don't see why it wouldn't already be happening on 2nd serves, if it would actually work. At the very least, I would think that the "let" rule has (per Alex's reasoning) changes who is likely to be a big-money winner on the Tour. Without it, smaller guys would be more competitive than guys with cannon serves.

Joe said...

Don't be too upset if your analysis overlaps Scalia -- he has his moments and I think he might have been right in the PGA case.

What got M&M on the vegan kick?

Also, I did at first think this was a riff on the filibuster vote. The "no rules" bit is silly. The rules were changed because the practice was being abused. We can debate the merits but as the OP suggests, the idea that some rule of nature is violated here is silly.

John Q. Barrett said...

I believe that the let rule hurts every server—a let usually turns into a dinky ace, except that the rule takes that would-be point away from the server and gives the returner a do-over. I think that the let rule hurts big servers most, because their power requires returners to stay farther back, and thus their lets are almost always (except for being disallowed) aces. But as I wrote, I’m not a tennis scholar, so this all could be wrong!

Paul Scott said...


re: tennis I think you are confusing the let with the fault.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Oh my! Yes, I have indeed been using the wrong word in my tennis analogy. My argument is about allowing a server to serve a second time, after missing on his first serve. I have incorrectly used the word "let," which correctly refers to another serve being awarded upon hitting the net (but otherwise being a good serve). My apologies. I'll fix the text as soon as possible.

Richard Hershberger said...

An example of something approaching a baseline in a sport is the concept of balls and strikes and a strike zone. In very early organized baseball, 1845-1857, there were swinging strikes but no called strikes, and no balls (in the "base on balls" sense of the word). A batter incurred no penalty for failing to swing at a pitch, and the pitcher incurred no penalty for failing to pitch a plausibly hittable ball.

How could this possibly work? Organized baseball evolved from a schoolyard game. The assumption was that the fun of the game was in running, and catching and throwing the ball. The batter's role was to put the ball in play so the fun could begin, while the pitcher's role was to deliver the ball so that the batter could put it in play. Social pressure was sufficient to suppress any too-smart boy who might delay the fun with boring gamesmanship like zipping the ball past the batter such that he couldn't hit it.

This changed in the mid- to late-1850s. Organized baseball was booming in and around New York City, and was fiercely competitive. In this cauldron, clubs were looking for an edge wherever they could find it. (First documented example of the hidden ball trick: 1858.) Pitchers were now throwing fast balls and trying to place the pitch enticingly just out of good hitting reach (or were so wild that the batter might swing out of sheer frustration). Batters had an even more insidious strategy: the wait game. Once a runner was on first, the next batter might simply to refuse to swing at anything. Catchers did not have any defensive equipment, and passed balls were common. So that runner would be able eventually to work his way around the bases at virtually no risk. The only problem was that this was stultifyingly boring, and games could run upwards of four hours. (First documented hand-wringing that baseball games take to long: 1857, and constant since then.)

The solution was in 1858 to expand on the existing concept of the swinging strike by authorizing the umpire to call a strike if the batter refused to swing at good pitches. The complement to this was added in 1864, adapting the cricket concept of the "wide", by authorizing the umpire to call balls and to award the batter first base on balls if the pitcher repeatedly failed to make hittable pitches.

It took about a quarter of a century of fiddling to arrive at the modern balance, and the modern balance certainly was not inevitable, but the basic idea--absent from early organized baseball--seems inevitable given the structure of the game. The only viable alternative I have been able to come up with would be to have the pitcher be a member of the batting team, like the modern home run derby. This in turn would produce a cascade of additional differences, beginning with a much deader ball than we have today and including no base stealing. The range of conceivable rules changes was much wider back then. Playing to nine innings, for example, was an innovation enacted in 1857. (They almost went with seven innings.) Before then they played to twenty-one runs. But there is no record of any suggestion as radical as having the pitcher be a member of the batting team. Rather, they adopted the smallest possible changes. With this assumption, called strikes and balls and a strike zone are an inevitable baseline addition to the game. It hasn't been the same since. (First documented complaint that they don't play baseball the right way anymore: 1858.)

Paul.K said...

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