Changing the Rules to Change Who Plays the Game

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Last Thursday, I posted some thoughts here on Dorf on Law about the controversy over new National Football League rules that were passed before this season, which are part of the ongoing effort to try to reduce the carnage of injuries to offensive players, especially quarterbacks.  (OK, "carnage" is clearly too strong a word.  Carnage describes what happens to the animals who will be killed to be served on American dinner tables tomorrow, while we watch football players injure each other.  But I digress, and tomorrow's post by Professor Dorf will expand upon the question of how vegans feel about Thanksgiving).

Whatever one thinks about the new rules (versions of which have also been adopted by the NCAA for college games), the prevalence of serious injuries in football is frightening.  After 11 games of a 16 game season, 32 NFL teams this year have placed a total of 47 quarterbacks on the injured reserve list.  In the college ranks, the University of Florida Gators have had a disappointing win-loss record because they are now starting their fourth-string quarterback, with the first three kids (and, as I understand it, 9 of the other 21 starters) suffering season-ending injuries.  (The outcry from Gator fans?  The coach should be fired, and even this extreme number of injuries cannot be used as an excuse!)  The University of Texas announced yesterday that one of their quarterbacks will not be able to play anymore, because of recurring symptoms from a severe concussion.  There is, to say the least, no reason to think that the new rules are making the lives of offensive players cushy.

In any event, I wrote my comments last week in reaction to the general illogic of an argument, which we hear mostly from current and former defensive players, that changing the rules in a way that they do no like is somehow fundamentally wrong, amounting to nothing less than an assault on the nature of the game itself.  My interest in that logical error is more general, because we see variations of it all the time in policy debates.  And sure enough, even though I was unaware of the analogy at the time that I wrote my post, it turned out that my comments could rightly be applied to Republicans' complaints about the changes to the filibuster rule that Democrats implemented last week, an application of my argument that I belatedly described in my Dorf on Law post two days ago.  "It's different!" is not the same as "It's illegitimately different," unless the difference can be assessed on the basis of some clear standard, which does not exist in football or the U.S. Senate.

In a response to a comment on my earlier post, however, I also promised to return to a different aspect of this debate.  One version of the basic complaint, as formulated by one former NFL defensive lineman, is that the new rules "make it harder to do my job."  I argued that the defensive players' job descriptions include playing by whatever rules the league adopts.  Some rules (like offensive holding, prohibitions against crack-back blocks, and so on) make it harder for offensive players to help their teams score.  Other rules (no head slaps, no roughing the passer, and so on) make it harder for defensive players to prevent the other team from scoring.  None of the new rules reduce the number of players on the defensive side of the ball, I noted, so every team will be forced to field a defensive squad, and every team's defense will play by the new rules.

Although that is all true, it raises two further interesting points.  First, it is possible that, when a defensive player says, "It's harder to do my job now," he could at least mean that the new rules will result in his position being reduced in economic value.  If sacks are no longer a big part of being an effective defensive player, then big salaries will not be coming the way of sack specialists.  No matter how many points are scored in games, however, the ability to play defense will be valued.  Even in the NBA, where teams average about 90 points per game, teams seek out and pay defensive specialists.

Currently, defensive ends and tackles are the second- and fourth-highest paid positions (ahead of running backs, receivers, and tight ends), so they are starting from a rather high point.  Let us assume, however, that the new rules tilt the salary balance, so that offensive players will soon get a bigger slice of the salary pie.  Everyone acknowledges that the reason the NFL is adopting the new rules is because of money.  Current and former defensive players, in fact, preface their complaints by fairly spitting, saying things like, "Come on, we know the NFL is doing this to protect the guys who sell the tickets!"

Right.  Former players also complain about how they were born too soon, because there is so much money to be made by current players.  In just the five-year span from 2007 to 2012, NFL minimum salaries rose by roughly one-third.  If the new rules allow the league to maintain fan interest -- and no one is claiming that the NFL is doing any of this for humanitarian reasons -- then the defensive players are going to be sharing in that larger pie.  Although it is possible that the new rules could make defensive players' relative salaries drop so far that the expanding pie will not make up the difference, color me skeptical.  I acknowledge the logical possibility that defensive players could lose money, and thus "make it harder to do my job" (or at least not be paid as much to do a slightly different set of tasks), but that is an empirical prediction that seems far-fetched, at best.

There is, however, a second way in which it could be true that any new set of rules can make it harder for players to do their jobs.  Different rules will not just force current players to play differently, but they are also virtually certain to cause teams to make different personnel decisions.  Consider how different basketball would be if there were no 3-point shot, and goal tending were legal.  Suddenly, Hall of Famers like Reggie Miller would have been nonviable in the league, and jokes like Gheorghe Muresan and Manute Bol would be among the all-time greats.  Hockey leagues that call tight penalties employ faster players with more finesse, whereas hockey leagues that allow fights and hard checking employ bigger, slower players.

It should be no surprise that this has happened in the NFL, too, most obviously in the rule changes from the early 1980's that made it easier for offensive linemen to use their hands without being called for holding.  This had the effect of de-emphasizing foot speed and mobility and emphasizing size and strength, which had the very predictable effect of adding dozens of pounds to the size of offensive linemen.  Steroids and human-growth hormone were part of it, but the cause-and-effect between the rule changes and who could make a living as an NFL offensive lineman is clear.

When a guy says that "the new rules make it harder for me to do my job," therefore, that can certainly be true in the sense that he, personally, might lose his job if new rules make his skill set unmarketable (and he is not able to adapt).  This is certainly not what the former players are saying, because the new rules do not affect them, making their grousing little more than "when men were men" silliness.  However, even if the people who play defense under the new rules will be paid more than under the old rules, some guys will lose their jobs, while others will replace them.

This, however, simply poses the baseline question in a different form.  Why are the current players entitled to prevent rules changes that disfavor them, when other hard-working athletes could thrive under different rules?  To say that different rules have different outcomes, both absolutely and distributionally, is hardly news.  In fact, that is why I find the baseline problem to be so generally important.

The people who run a sports league, therefore, can use the rules not just to change the way current players play the game (discouraging helmet-to-helmet hits, for example), but also to change who plays the game.  If the problem is that 300-pound men can do too much damage to 220-pound men in violent collisions, then one response is to change the rules about how the larger men can hit the smaller men.  Another response is to change the rules to simply ban the larger men.  A third, however, is to change the rules not just to change how one group of men hit another group of men, but to make it less likely that any team's competitive advantage would be served by hiring behemoths.

There is a reason that we do not see players with huge stomachs playing in the NBA, but we do see it in the NFL (and, to a diminishing extent, in baseball and golf).  Or, to be more accurate, there are many reasons.  When the NFL changes its rules, it should not think of the ultimate effects on personnel decisions as an unintended consequence, but as a goal in itself.