Thursday, December 16, 2010

By The Rules

To say that the modern world of sports media is a bit, uh, formulaic would be a massive understatement.

It's evident anywhere you look. They have someone who write a column about TV sports? We need one too. Their sports radio station has a pompous self-absorbed guy? We need one too.

Look at NFL pregame shows, for example. They have a host or two, a former coach, some former players? They all sit around the set and laugh as if the humor of what they have just said has eclipsed anything before it in the history of mankind? We need to get the exact same thing.

That's why something that is fresh and different and, most of all, smart stands out like a sore thumb. And Fox Sports has come up with something that fits the definition.

And it was so simple. Get an expert on officiating and the rules and let him comment on TV during the games and online during the week about the closest calls.

The result has been that Mike Pereira has vaulted near the top of TigerBlog's list of favorites in a very short time.

Pereira was an NFL official for two years and then spent a decade working in the league office as Director of Officiating and later Vice President for Officiating. He clearly knows his stuff.

During Fox's NFL games, Pereira can be seen via cut-in when there are complex rules interpretations or during replay challenges. During the week, he writes a few follow-up pieces on the most interesting calls of the previous weekend's games.

Again, it's so plain that TB has no idea how it ever got past whatever decision-makers are out there. It lacks any star-power, any pizazz, any forced comedy, and yet it works so well.

And why?

Because so many people don't know the rules. Forget just the fans and announcers. There are huge numbers of coaches and players who obviously don't.

A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, TB was a high school baseball umpire. It was a pretty good little part-time job, one that paid surprisingly well for a few hours of work.

To become an umpire, cadets had to attend a class on the rules of the game and mechanics of the position, while also working at middle school, freshman or jayvee games. To become certified, TB had to take a test, which consisted of 100 true/false rules questions.

TB got a 99 on the test, and to this day, he's a bit bitter that he got one wrong, largely because he knew the rule and didn't like how the question was written. Specifically, the question was: Can medical alert bracelets be worn by players during games. The answer is that the bracelet can't be worn as a bracelet but can be taped to the player's chest, so TB figured that meant true. Instead, it was false, and TB got a 99.

Anyway, what amazed TB most about umpiring was how many coaches and players didn't know the rules. Not the four balls, three strikes, three outs parts, but some of the more obscure ones that definitely came up.

TB remembers one game where a player caught a ball in fair territory and then toppled over the small outfield fence. The coach of the team at-bat came out and vehemently argued that this was a home run (it isn't, though the fielder had to climb back over the fence before he'd be able to legally throw the ball, something TB doubts the fielder knew).

As an aside, TB also remembers a time when another coach came to argue a call, and TB's response was "you squeezed with the bases loaded and one out in the first inning of a high school freshman game and have the nerve to come out here and argue?"

As a youth coach, TB makes sure to take time to teach the rules, usually in a Socratic method by coming up with a situation and asking the players whether or not it's allowed or not.

For instance, in lacrosse, TB asked the group if a player could kick the ball into the goal. When one kid muttered "yes," TB said "are you sure?" When the response again was "yes," TB was impressed, not only that the kid had it right but also that he had the courage to risk being told he was wrong.

In watching Pereira on TV and reading his stuff on, TB has gotten to thinking about Princeton coaches and athletes and how well they know the rules.

And, beyond that, how much time - if any - Princeton coaches spend on teaching their players the rules. And so, TB did his own little survey.

It turns out that Princeton coaches, at least the 12 TigerBlog asked, don't devote serious time to rules instruction. They do talk a lot about rules changes and interpretations in the preseason, but not about the core rules.

Another common theme is to go over rules specific to a situation, such as when you can run the baseline in basketball.

Only two coaches in 12 said that teaching the rules was an important consideration.

TigerBlog asked if the players arrive here with an excellent knowledge of the rules, and the common response to that was along the lines of "very good but not excellent."

Some of the comments were pretty interesting. For instance, one coach said this:
Have done "rule of the day" in the past to emphasis guys understanding (with
accompanying spot quiz during stretch). Has varied between some and a lot
of time. More "some" these days... Definitely need to learn rules. College is different than high school. We've had refs come to practice to explain, demonstrate.

And another said this:
We have a session at the start of the year with officials to answer
any question the players might have. After that, we spend zero time on

And this:
I go over some of the rules in preseason because college rules are different from what the guys are used to.

When you think of coaching, you think about recruiting, game-planning, adjusting in-game. You don't really think about teaching rules.

And yet it's such a big part of the sports world. There have been so many examples, especially on the pro level, of players who have cost their teams games because they clearly didn't know what to do in a given situation.

TB can't remember an example of when that's happened in a Princeton game, either by a Princeton player or an opponent.

But the rules are a big deal.

Especially when someone doesn't know them.


Brett said...

You have 15 days to write 27 posts, otherwise you will have fewer than last year. Buckle down and get to writing.

TigerBlog said...

TigerBlog has written one entry every working day of 2009 and 2010. Even with 11 more to go in this year, that still leaves him 16 short. How did that happen?

Anonymous said...

The necessity of knowing the rules is directly proportional to the desperation of the circumstances. (This is similar to realizing that you need a plumber's helper or a fire extinguisher.) More often than not, rule knowledge is critical when time is short (recall Rutgers trying to intentionally miss a second free throw, rebound the ball to make a shot to tie or win; the player did not realize the ball must hit the rim). It would seem to follow that practical situational coaching would incorporate rule instruction particular to the circumstance being reviewed. In bounds plays in basketball; nearly every kicking situation in football, etc.