5 Old-Timey Rules Sports Should Bring Back Immediately
Like a bratty kid shouting "New rule! New rule!" whenever something happens that he doesn't like, sports leagues love nothing more than changing their rules. Usually these are minor tweaks, like baseball's new one-game playoff to determine which Wild Card team goes on to lose against somebody better, or basketball changing its Finals format to ensure more travel, because it turns out the real championship is the memories the players make together on the road.
All modern changes, unfortunately, are either about making things safer or making more money for people who aren't us, which obviously does nothing in the direction of making things interesting. To do that, we need to revisit the past -- the glorious, horrible, screwed-up past. The early days of pro sports had some of the most entertaining rules imaginable, and bringing them back would freshen up pro ball handling overnight.
Basketball in a Cage
Say hello to basketball's "angry phase."
"Everyone remembers where they were when Jordan tombstoned Mankind through the top of that thing."
Yes, up until the mid-1930s, basketball games were contested in a cage. Unruly fans kept charging the court, and the ball kept ending up nowhere near the hoop, because 1930s basketball players and fans were both terrible, but for completely different reasons. The solution? Encase the court in 12-foot-high steel mesh so the crowd stays out and the ball stays in. Fuck security; that costs money. And fuck drawing boundaries; that involves time and effort. Shutting people inside a giant chicken coop is fun, cheap, and easy.
On Fan Appreciation Night, the first 1,000 in attendance were allowed to leave with their lives.
It was dangerous, too; any good intended by the cage was forgotten as soon as players realized that brutally slamming opponents into it would make them far less likely to score going forward. Basketball soon degenerated into a ... a ... what's the word?
No, that just sounds stupid.
Year after year of basket-beating-up-ball (NAILED IT) finally wore thin, as fans found themselves seduced by the college version of the game. There, basketball had hard rules and set boundaries, athletics in place of pure physicality, and nobody named their team the goddamned Mules. The pros quickly learned how to play sans cage, realizing at the end of the day that basketball's "get ball, put ball in hole" mandate wasn't all that complex of a goal to begin with.
The NBA needs this cage back, though, and stat. Based on the success of MMA, audiences aren't as squeamish as before, and a bunch of lanky giants brutalizing one another should do massive numbers. True, selling sneakers might be tougher when everybody's bleeding on them, but the increased ticket sales will more than make up for lost shoe revenue.
Championship Teams Defending Their Titles Like Boxers and Wrestlers Do
Even non-sports fans know how to win a title -- the team with the most drugs pulsating through their bloodstream wins a shiny trophy, and then they inject more drugs to win another trophy the next season. Nobody actually "loses" a championship -- not even teams that, in hindsight, never deserved to win in the first place.
"We won? Wow, we ALSO didn't watch the World Series the year we were in it, that's crazy. Good for us, I guess."
But from 1893 to 1914, hockey employed the challenge series, where teams could actually lose the Stanley Cup at any time, much like how boxers or wrestlers lose their title. OK, maybe not wrestlers -- I'm guessing the Boston Bruins never lost the cup because the Montreal Canadiens trapped their goalie under a forklift and scored at will.
The rules were simple: If a top team challenged the Stanley Cup champions and won, they became the champions. When the new champs got challenged, the process began again. It was like an arcade fighting game where the loser paid and the winner stayed, only with more toothless psychopaths who got knocked in the head too often and fewer supernatural psychopaths who got their torsos torn to shreds too often.
"Kung Lao: Flawless Victory. Here is the Stanley Cup."
Back then, they only played in the wintertime, since the ice was real and audiences didn't want to see 10 minutes of great hockey followed by an hour of terrible water polo. Thus, each team only played a handful of games, leaving little room for constant cup-switching. However, there was still opportunity for a team to hilariously shit itself, like the Montreal Victorias did in 1895. They won the Cup on March 6 and lost it to Montreal HC just three days later. At least the cup stayed in Montreal, a fact I'm sure HC reminded the Victorias of time and again.
Mustache Mustache Mustache Mustache Mustache.
Sadly, hockey abandoned the challenge series in 1915 in favor of whatever worthless bullshit we have today. Sharing the trophy, probably. Reinstating the challenge series would make every game matter for once. No more would crap teams tank their whole season, since a hot winning streak could mean a title shot in just a few weeks.
Asking the Fans if a Play Was Good
Blogs, podcasts, and sports talk radio have proven that most fans don't know the first thing about sports. I can attest to this, as my version of expert analysis involves complaining about the beard situation in baseball and how I want my beloved Red Sox to sign Al Alburquerque for next season -- not because he's a good pitcher, but because his name is awesome and fun to say.
That's the picture we put on a card?
The point is, we should never be asked our opinions on anything jockish. Too bad Major League Baseball took so long to figure that out. From 1876 to 1911, they actually had a rule that stated:
"Should the umpire be unable to see whether a catch has been fairly made or not, he shall be at liberty to appeal to the bystanders, and to render his decision according to the fairest testimony at command."
In short, umpires asked fans what they thought. Biased, ignorant, quite possibly drunken fans. Clearly the system failed, because the rule's gone. But you know what else is failing? Today's system. Even with multiple officials and instant replay that covers more angles than AP geometry, calls still get blown on a regular basis, and players either get away with murder or are punished for imaginary infractions.
"You gave me bad Chinese food in a dream last night! HIT THE BRICKS, PAL!"
So let the fans tell the officials what to do -- hell, you might as well widen the net from "fair catches" to "any play that confuses the official." Whenever I watch my favorite teams, I feel so impotent sitting at home knowing the only thing I could do to help them was get really drunk. What if I actually could help them by influencing the referees? And what if me and the players went on to become friends because I did such a good job helping them win? I don't know, what if Al Alburquerque and I move in together and OH MY GOD START A BAND!?!
Please bring this rule back.
Everybody Must Play the Entire Game
Decades ago, if you wanted your job to be "children's game expert," you really had to earn your keep. Rulebooks almost universally forced every player to play every minute of every game; if they didn't, they needed a fantastic reason, like being dead and ... well, that's about it. Even actively dying players were expected to finish the game before moving on to warm that big bench up in the sky.
Half of this lineup was technically zombies. What'd you think "dead ball era" meant?
In the world of baseball, this meant no relief pitchers, no closers, and no pinch-anything. If somebody started the game, they had to finish it. If they sucked eggs that day, they simply switched positions with another guy and tried to do better. If they still sucked, then the manager had them shot on the field like an injured racehorse. Sources are a bit fuzzy about that last part, but given how seriously they took everything back then, it makes perfect sense.
It wasn't just baseball; football expected everybody to play everything, too. Substitutions were strictly forbidden, making offensive and defensive players one and the same. They didn't sit on the sidelines and drink Gatorade until it was their turn to play again. It was always their turn.
This idea has been abandoned by anyone other than kids playing pick-up games in the street. Baseball has allowed substitution and bullpens since 1889, and football teams have had separate offensive and defensive lines since 1950. And that's fine, if you're cool with watching soft and squishy people half-ass your favorite sport. After all, what's more impressive: pitching an entire game, or showing up late to strike out one guy and then leave?
"OK, we're really blowing this, so ... quarterback and nose tackle -- you guys switch. Tight end, you're our kicker now, and that one cheerleader with the crazy eyes? Get her a helmet; she's our new running back. Go team!"
Forcing Teams to Fold if They Suck Hard Enough
The early world of sports was just plain merciless on bad teams. Scores of shitty squads died unceremonious deaths every year, because either their win-loss record made Charlie Brown's team look like the Yankees or they pulled in less money than a lemonade stand set up in the Australian Outback.
The New York Mutuals, for example, were a horrible old-timey baseball team that couldn't even afford to travel out West and lose their road games. That, combined with a nickname that they might have ripped off from a local insurance company, sealed their fate. Meanwhile, the Denver Nuggets played for two years in two different basketball leagues. They sucked both years and were mercy-killed rather quickly.
Today's Denver Nuggets pay tribute to their namesake by vomiting all over each other every single year.
Perhaps it's high time we revisit the Crappy Club Purge Era, because seeing 40,000-seat stadiums jam-packed with 9,000 apathetic drifters posing as fans is only slightly less depressing than children caught in the middle of an active war zone. Also, there are teams that, when they know they don't have a shot at making the playoffs, will intentionally tank their season to get a better draft pick the following year. How's THAT for sportsmanship? Sadly, thanks to every problem being buried under piles of money nowadays, we'll probably see the sun die out before another awful team closes up shop. The closest we come now is when a team gets sold to another billionaire, who then gives his new toy free range to suck someplace else. That's like cutting out a cancer and then sticking it in another patient's body.
"Don't worry, we've got a pretty good idea of what we're doing. Besides, it's for science."
Obviously, today's sporting world is a bit more organized, so we couldn't just kick out a team for a couple of shitty seasons; every team goes through that. But if some squad goes, say, 15 years without a winning season and without filling at least 50 percent of their venue annually, then they're not a pro sports team, and the league should have every right to kick their ass out.
The Pittsburgh Pirates: 1887-2007, in a perfect world.