Thursday, February 25, 2010

Hack-a-Shaq and Sport's Rule of Law

The Olympics always make me question the rules of sports. I watch all these new sports with unfamiliar rules and I'm often struck by the seeming arbitrariness of these laws. But the weirdness might not be limited to foreign sports played on ice: questions about the meaning and motivation of the rules of familiar American sports abound, once we take a step back and look at them objectively.

A friend of mine directed my attention to what turns out to be a damn good Wikipedia article on the Hack-a-Shaq strategy. (He had to read it in lawyer school, in the context of legal loopholes; thanks, Dave.) For the uninitiated:

The Hack-a-Shaq name was originally used during [Shaquille] O'Neal's college playing days, and during his NBA tenure with the Orlando Magic. At that time, however, the term referred simply to opposing teams employing an especially physical style of play in defending against O'Neal. Teams sometimes defended him by bumping, striking or pushing him after he received the ball in order to ensure that he did not score easily with layups or slam dunks. Because of O'Neal's poor free throw shooting, teams did not fear the consequences having personal fouls called against them when using such tactics. However, once [Don] Nelson's off-the-ball fouling strategy became prevalent, the term Hack-a-Shaq was applied to this new tactic, and the original usage was largely forgotten.

The interesting part is the tension between the rulebook and the spirit of the game. The Wikipedia article goes into some detail describing the NBA's attempt to limit this fouling strategy (whether in Wilt Chamberlain's playing days or Shaq's) by awarding two-shots and possession to the team whose player is intentionally fouled in the final two minutes of game action, in order to preserve the sheer watchability of the contest. But should the governing rules of the sport be compromised for considerations of entertainment value?

This is a cool question, not least because fouling itself may be something of a compromise. The concept of free throws seems to be an invented solution to the problem of overaggressive defenders. In short, it's a punishment for cheating, rather than an essential part of the game. Theoretically, if defenders never fouled--if fouling wasn't possible--there'd be no need for free throws. (You can listen to Bill Cosby's take on this development here.) The flaw which the Hack-a-Shaq strategy exploits itself derives from a compromise solution.

Similar questions have been raised about the infield fly rule, most notably by William S. Stevens, who wrote a celebrated article titled “The Common Law Origins of the Infield Fly Rule” in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. You can find the article here (PDF link), but here's the relevant section:

The Infield Fly Rule is obviously not a core principle of baseball. Unlike the diamond itself or the concepts of "out" and "safe," the Infield Fly Rule is not necessary to the game. Without the Infield Fly Rule, baseball does not degenerate into bladderball the way the collective bargaining process degenerates into economic warfare when good faith is absent. It is a technical rule, a legislative response to actions that were previously permissible, though contrary to the spirit of the sport.

Where because the men who oversaw the rules of baseball during the 1890's were unwilling to make a more radical change than was necessary to remedy a perceived problem in the game, or because they were unable to perceive the need for a broader change than was actually made, three changes in the substantive rules, stretching over a seven-year period, were required to put the Infield Fly Rule in its present form. In each legislative response to playing field conduct, however, the fundamental motive for action remained the same: "To prevent the defense from making a double play by subterfuge, at a time when the offense is helpless to prevent it, rather than by skill and speed."
[Note: I've left out the footnotes of this excerpt because they aren't strictly relevant to my point and because I'm stupid at HTML.]

Sportswriters often crack wise about the infield fly rule but I always thought that was due to the obscurity of the rule; I failed, until tonight, to understand the legal ramifications.

And--just so we hit all three major American sports--this makes me wonder about the onside kick in football. I'm not sure why it's allowed. Why can the kicking team recover the ball just because it traveled ten yards? Why is this rule limited to free kicks, and not, for example, punts? Is it allowed because of the increase in entertainment value, giving hope to teams teams trailing by multiple scores in the fourth quarter?

Maybe curling isn't so weird, after all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A truly exceptional wikipedia article. I'm curious to know which board law school student or prof. took the time to write it.