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Five Lessons: Hard-to-Explain Rules in Sports
Sunday, 2009 July 19 - 11:27 am
This is a new feature here on Periodically, I'm going to start posting five (hopefully informative) tidbits on a particular topic. We'll see if this feature lasts longer than my earlier "Learn Something Every Day" feature that fizzled after a few days. If there are particular topics you'd like me to cover, let me know.

Today's topic: Five Hard-to-Explain Rules in Sports. The assumption here is that you're a casual sports spectator who knows the basics about a sport, but then some obscure rule comes into play that leaves you wondering what happened.

1. The Infield Fly Rule in baseball. This is a classic. Say there's a runner on first base. The batter pops the ball in the air for what should be an easy catch by an infielder, so the runner stays put on first base. But then, unexpectedly, the infielder lets the ball drop to the ground first, then picks it up and wings it to second base. The baserunner is still standing on first base, so he's out by force-out. If the ball is then thrown to first base before the batter gets there, it's a double play.

The baserunner on first can't possibly leave first base while the ball is in the air, since then he'd be out if the ball was caught and then thrown to first. So the batting team is screwed, right?

Well, that's where this rule comes into play. When the ball is popped up, an umpire will immediately declare (based on his judgment) "infield fly", and the batter is declared out regardless of whether the ball is caught or not. The baserunner therefore cannot be forced out at second base.

If the baserunner were on second base and first base were empty, the rule would not apply, since a force-out is not possible.

2. Icing in hockey. This one is simple in concept, but it's the exceptions that make it complicated. On a hockey rink there are three red lines: one at the center of the ice, and one near each end running across the mouth of the goal. If you pass the puck from your own side of the center line and it crosses the opponent's red line without being touched by anyone, it's icing.

But the exceptions are these:
  • If the puck touches a member of the passing team who has even one toe past the center line, icing does not apply.
  • If the passing team is short-handed because they drew a penalty, icing does not apply.
  • If the opponent had an opportunity to play the puck but didn't, icing does not apply.
  • If the puck touches the box in front of the goal (the goal crease), icing does not apply.
So a lot of times you'll hear the announcer saying "icing was waved off", meaning that in the official's opinion, one of the exceptions to the icing rule applied, and the passing team was not guilty of icing.

The penalty for icing is that play is stopped and a face-off is taken deep in the offending team's zone. Additionally, the offending team is not allowed to substitute players while play is stopped.

3. Offsides in soccer. This one is also fairly simple, but a lot of people aren't aware of the definition. When you pass the ball to your teammate while he/she is farther downfield (closer to the opponent's goal) than all but one opponent (usually the goalie), your teammate is called offsides and an indirect free kick is given to your opponents.

The rule does not apply if your team is entirely on your own (defensive) half of the field.

Offsides is considered at the time the ball is kicked, not when the ball is received; so a well-timed run might be mistaken for offsides.

Soccer teams will sometimes try to run an "offsides trap", where all the defenders rush forward before a ball is passed, trying to catch one of the opposing players offsides. But if this play is mis-timed, it can result in the opposing player running free beyond the defense, so it's a risky tactic.

4. Ineligible Receiver in football. A lot of people believe that the reason you don't pass the football to an offensive lineman is because they're big lumbering clods with taped-up hands who couldn't possibly catch the ball. However, most of the time, it's actually against the rules for linemen to catch a pass.

To be eligible to receive a pass, you must start the play at least one yard away from the line of scrimmage (the imaginary line where the ball sits before the play starts), or you must be the outermost player on the line of scrimmage. So in a typical formation, two receivers are lined up on the line of scrimmage, one on each side of the formation; everyone else besides the offensive line is somewhere off the line. To prevent teams from making more receivers eligible by playing more of them off the line, there's a formation rule that requires at least seven players to be lined up on the line of scrimmage.

Additionally, college football rules state that anyone wearing a number between 50 and 79 (an offensive lineman number) can never be eligible, regardless of formation. In the NFL, offensive linemen can become eligible for certain plays, but they must declare themselves eligible to the referee before the play (and the formation must put them in an eligible position).

In the NFL, the quarterback cannot be an eligible receiver if he takes the snap from under center. If the takes the snap in a "shotgun" formation, he becomes eligible. In college football, the quarterback is always an eligible receiver.

Receiver eligibility only applies to forward passes, not to lateral or backwards passes.

5. Traveling in basketball. This one should be simple: in basketball, you can't take both your feet off the ground (simultaneously, or in succession) unless you're dribbling or in the act of shooting the ball.

What's happened over the years, though, is that a lot of leeway has been given for certain situations. If you're running with the ball on the way to making a layup, you're allowed two steps (each foot can touch the ground once) after you've picked up your dribble. That seems to have extended to two-and-a-half steps or even three steps at times, particularly in the NBA. Some of the confusion comes because with a lot of players, it's hard to discern exactly when they've stopped dribbling the ball.

Nowadays, referees usually go by instinct: "if it looks like traveling, it's traveling". That leads to some inconsistency in calling the rule, leaving a lot of people scratching their heads what the actual rule is.

Any other sports rules you'd like to see explained? I also considered holding in football, charging in basketball, and taking relief in golf.
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Posted by Ken in: interestingsports


Comment #1 from Phil (marsosudiro)
2009 Jul 19 - 1:10 pm : #
BTW: you might add a sentence of text to the hockey and offsides rules, to show -why- the rules exist, which would help some folks understand the rest of your explanations.
Comment #2 from Phil (marsosudiro)
2009 Jul 19 - 3:54 pm : #
Hey - the comments thing seems to have erased my other comment which was "awesome!"

Comments are closed for this post.

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