Rules and Predictability in Sports by Ryan Caldwell

Posted on December 28, 2011 by

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This post marks our first guest submission to Field Grade! Ryan Caldwell works as a consultant for several contractors in the defense industry. He recently graduated from law school and is making a tentative return to blogging. You can follow him on Twitter at @CaldwellGR.

This is an issue that has irritated me for a while, but now seems as propitious a time as any to write a blog post about it. In the space of less that a week recently, we saw a bloody brawl between two college basketball teams and the suspension of a former Defensive Player of the Year in the NFL. In both cases, Sports Illustrated writers, no doubt among others, thought that the punishment did not fit the crime. This is hardly the first time that fans have been upset by the arbitrary way in which after-the-fact punishments are handed out for on-court and on-field behavior. The NFL, since the ascension of Roger Goodell to the commissioner’s chair, has had the most well-publicized incidents of seeming hypocrisy.

The Goodell controversies pale compared to the challenges that the NHL faced with its supplementary discipline process by the end of last year. Colin Campbell, the discipline czar, was widely ridiculed for his conflicts of interest and the unpredictability of his rulings (the hard-to-shake rumors about Campbell’s alleged partiality didn’t help either). The NHL, to its credit, remedied the situation by taking two steps: first, they replaced Campbell with Brendan Shanahan; second, and much more importantly, they began clearly stating the reasons for discipline in a series of video productions, hosted by Shanahan.

Though oft-mocked, these videos do players, fans, and referees a favor by setting a clear set of rules through which all plays should be viewed. This is important, as it is impossible for a rulebook to cover all conceivable situations and judgments based on the facts of any particular case will inevitably be judged by how closely they resemble the facts of other cases. When the facts seem similar, but punishments diverge, fans lose confidence in the judge. Witness, for instance, the fan irritation that resulted from the Renaldo Sidney fight, or the Marshall Faulk “slap v. punch” decision from the 2001* playoffs, or this year’s debate over William Gholston and the weirdness of being suspended for a punch, but not for twisting someone’s neck after a play.. Or just review any NHL blog post from the end of the Campbell era.

I would like to see more sports leagues taking a page from NHL and clearly publishing their interpretations when they decide upon punishments. I wish to know what factors were considered before Goodell handed James Harrison a (well-deserved and not-unprecedented) one-game suspension. I could see precedential value from Cincinnati and Xavier coaches explaining their suspension criteria. The NHL, which is as “bang-bang” a league as the NFL, has raised the bar, and I see no reason that other leagues cannot match it.

Of course, this demands that the people in positions of responsibility in sports act proactively, not something that they are renowned for their abilities to accomplish. But the refusal to give up any freedom of action does make fans cynical, and I believe that it is in the long-term interests of the games to create a better system of accountability. Kudos to the NHL for (finally) being the most advanced of the leagues.

*I believe that this was 2001, but I could be wrong. The incident has disappeared from the internet, apparently.
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