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.