Thursday, 12 December 2013

Sports rules and essentialism

Travis Waldron at Think Progress has some good thoughts on the decision by MLB to outlaw home-plate collisions by prohibiting runners from running through the catcher and prohibiting catchers from blocking the plate. Essentially, home plate now is treated the same way as every other base--fielders can block the plate only if making a play on the ball and runners must slide. The move is driven by safety considerations--not only concussions, but also injuries such as the broken leg that Giants catcher Buster Posey suffered in 2011 or the infamous collision between Pete Rose and Ray Fosse that changed (for the worse) Fosse's career).

Not surprisingly, this has caused handwringing among those who insist this will change the very nature of the game, including some who liken it to eliminating tackling in football. Waldron has great responses to all of these arguments. And his responses call attention to two analytical ideas in thinking about sports rules and whether and how to change sports rules to make games safer.

One is essentialism--which aspects of a sport are "essential" to the sport, such that if you remove or alter them, you are changing the nature of the game. Many of you will remember this as one point of departure in PGA v. Martin, where the Court divided on whether walking the course was part of what made golf golf. My view is that few rules or plays are ever so essential to a game; most are simply the way things always have been done and can be changed without altering "the game." Certainly tackling is essential to tackle (as opposed to touch or flag) football. But home-plate collisions are not essential to baseball; if they are, one would have to explain why similar collisions are banned at the other three bases.

Second is distinguishing what we can control from what we cannot control in the search for increased safety. Waldron highlights the fact that the most common cause of concussions in catchers is foul tips, which leads to the argument that the next move is to ban foul balls. That's stupid, of course. We can't ban foul balls because we can't control foul balls, which are an incidental rather than intentional part of the game. No batter tries to foul a ball off the catcher's head and no pitcher tries to get the batter to foul the ball off the catcher's head; it just happens sometimes. But catchers do try to block home plate and runners do try to barrel catchers over (see Rose, who has had some typically inane things to say about this). It thus is possible to prohibit the conduct by both sides that leads to these collisions.

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