The Washington Post

How unwritten rules improve professional sports

Faking injuries to slow down an offense goes against one of the NFL’s unwritten rules. (Julio Cortez/AP)

While technically not an illegal action by the Giants defenders, the exercise of bending the rules violated the unwritten rule of the NFL that places the integrity of the game over the outcome of the game itself. The integrity of the unwritten rules of professional sports is what makes these sports the sacred events the fans have come to expect. However, imposing more rules is not the answer. Instead, the answer is for the players, coaches and front office executives to understand the rules and unwritten rules. They must be self disciplined in enforcing these rules on themselves in order to preserve the honor of the game.

All major sports have understood rules that are as much of the fabric of the sports as the games themselves. Those rules make games that much more fascinating, exciting and unbelievable. For instance, hockey is the sport with the greatest and most numerous of these implied rules. Watching players drop their gloves prior to engaging in fisticuffs creates a more fair and gentlemanly bout. Hockey players all know never to body check an opposing team’s goalie and expect to be engaged in fisticuffs if they needlessly collide with the opposing team’s star players. The same can be said in golf, where players know not to walk in another players’ putting lines, refrain from talking during back swings, and routinely compliment competitors’ quality shots.

The sport of baseball is famous for its unwritten rules. In baseball, you don’t show up an opposing team’s pitcher after walloping a monstrous home run, don’t steal bases in blowout victories, and the pitcher often throws brush back pitches towards a hitter after a home run. Other sports also include such rules such as not undercutting a player driving for a layup (basketball), not taking out a players legs (football) and allowing a lead bicycle rider to recapture the lead pack if the rider experiences mechanical bike troubles during a race stage (Tour de France). These rules will not be found in any of the official rule books but exist due to the tradition of the game and the competitors who believe that this tradition is as important to the integrity of the sport as winning the competition.

The necessity of winning sometimes encourages contestants to skirt the rules, to trump integrity and morality. It should not be up to the leagues to legislate morality, but rather to educate. And this education should not just be limited to the players but to all participants in the games, including the front offices and coaching staffs that sometimes promulgate and require players to follow the breaking of unwritten rules in search of the holy grail. The coach who taps the shoulder of an enforcer in hockey to engage in a fight or the manager who calls for a pitcher to throw at the head of an opposing teams batter are just as guilty as the actual actor. And since these rules are of the “unwritten” variety, it should be up to the same people, the players, front office and coaches to insure that they lead by example and follow all the rules to insure the integrity of the game. What is not needed is more league rules. We need the integrity of the participants themselves in order to prevent the abuses perpetrated by the Giants defenders last week.


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