Sports Law Blog
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Thursday, April 06, 2017
The solution to late-game fouling?

No one likes late-game intentional fouling in basketball, because it drags out games and produces boring basketball of constant stoppages and endless free throws. On the other hand, there is no way around the strategy, as it reflects the only way that a trailing defensive team can save time and get the ball back.
But it appears Nick Elam, a middle-school principle and MENSA member from Dayton, has a solution: In the final three minutes of the NBA game (final four in college), turn off the game clock and play until either team reaches a target score, set at +7 from the leading team's score when the clock is turned off. So if Team A leads 99-91 when the clock goes off, the teams play to 106. Elam has been sending his proposal around to basketball types, some of whom purportedly find it interesting, but too radical to implement just yet. But it is going to be used in the early rounds of The Basketball Tournament, a $2-million 64-team tournment featuring teams of former college players. (Elam is interviewed on the tournament podcast).

The proposal does eliminate any incentive to take fouls at the end of the game, because a trailing team can simply play good defense without having to worry about preserving time on the clock. The only fouls we might see are to stop a three-pointer, although that strategy is so time-sensitive (it only works under :04 or so) that it might dissolve on its own. Eliminating the game clock somewhat changes the nature of the game somewhat, which is played in a rhythm of time, but not as much as soccer shoot-outs or college football overtime. And the shot clock remains, so there still is a time element to keep possessions and the game moving.

The proposal may not succeed in shortening games and might lengthen them--not because the clock is stopping constantly, but because teams are not scoring. This will be especially true in close playoff games, where the defense ratchets up in the final minutes. For example, at the 3:00 mark of Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, the score was 89-89, meaning the game would have been played to 96. The final score was 93-89, and one of those points came on a made free throw off an intentional foul with :10 left. The defense was that good and the players were that tired (this included LeBron James's block of a fast-break layup).

On the other hand, perhaps offenses would be freer to look for the best shot at anytime, no longer worried about any time considerations. Teams now get as many possessions as it takes to score the requisite points, so they need not save or waste time. Back to Game 7: After Cleveland's Kyrie Irving hit a go-ahead 3 with :53 left, Golden State used almost the entire shot clock to get Steph Curry isolated on a weak defender, who forced Curry to miss a three-pointer. But Golden State does not need a three in that situation; it can get a better two-point shot, knowing that, if it plays good defense, it will have a greater number of possessions and opportunities to score.

Monday, April 03, 2017
Lexi Thompson and the application of golf's rules

Last Sunday, the golf world suffered through another difficult rules incident when the LPGA, acting on a tip from a television viewer, imposed a four-stroke penalty on Lexi Thompson for a small rules violation commited during play concluded on the previous day.  This penalty probably cost Ms. Thompson the tournament (one of the LPGA’s majors), as she wound up losing in a playoff.

Commentary immediately following this fiasco predictably and appropriately included criticism about acting on tips from TV viewers and the notion that a penalty could be imposed long after play in a given round had concluded.  One thing missing, however, was detailed analysis about the substantive ruling itself.  Most commentators appeared to presume that the LPGA had no choice in the matter because the rules of golf clearly prescribed the outcome, painful as the outcome was.

Was this really the case?  A closer look at the rules of golf suggest that an entirely different result would have been entirely defensible, and in many ways far better for the game.

The LPGA stated that Thompson had violated rule 20-7C by playing from the wrong place.  This violation allegedly happened when Thompson marked her ball on the green in accordance with the rules, picked it up, and then placed the ball back on the green before putting.  TV replays showed that Thompson inadvertently failed to place the ball exactly where it was when she picked it up.  This put Thompson in apparent violation of rules 16-1b and 20-1, which require a marked ball to be “replaced.”  When Thompson then putted the ball from this location, she (in the opinion of the LPGA) played from the wrong place.

I do not believe that was the only interpretation of the rules available to the LPGA.  First, Rule1-4 states, “If any point in dispute is not covered by the Rules, the decision should be made in accordance with equity.” 

Second, the meaning of the word “replace” does not necessarily mean that Thompson violated the rule.  One might, as the LPGA apparently did, interpret that word to mean that the competitor must place her ball in exactly the same place as it rested when picked up.  Of course, no competitor ever does precisely that.  Every ball, by reason of human error, is placed back on the green some minute distance from its original location.  Thus, the meaning of “replace” cannot refer to exactly where the ball previously rested.  Instead, there is a margin for error that must be permitted. 

How large a margin should there be?  One possibility is to interpret “replace” so that a player doesn’t violate the rule if the ball is close enough to its original location to avoid any meaningful advantage.  Another possibility is to interpret the word so that the player doesn’t violate the rule if the variance from the original location is within a distance capable of casual perception by others present on the green.  Together, these interpretations probably conform to everyday practice.  Golfers do not stand over their fellow competitors to make sure that balls get replaced exactly in the same location.  They are content to police the rule within what’s casually perceptible because errors smaller than that do not lead to meaningful advantage.

This interpretation would have kept Thompson in the clear.  She clearly did not gain any material advantage from her error.  From watching TV replays, I seriously doubt her ball was more than an inch from where it originally lay.  Her putt was extremely short and probably would have been conceded by an opponent in match play.  No one, to my knowledge, has claimed that Thompson made her putt easier.

Additionally, I think it is significant that no one (including her fellow competitors, their caddies, or any rules official who may have originally been present) noticed the supposed misplacement.  Instead, the problem came to light because a viewer watching TV emailed the LPGA.  Yes, when you watch the replay and you’re told to look for it, it’s possible to see that Thompson’s ball is perceptibly “misplaced.”  However, it’s not really apparent without a zoom-in shot, and I highly doubt that anyone watching her at the time could have seen it without standing over her to monitor every movement in detail.  No golfer does that to a fellow competitor.

Accordingly, there is ample room to argue that Thompson did indeed “replace” her ball within the meaning of the applicable rules.  I am of course aware that one could reach a different interpretation, one based on a more literal meaning attached to “replace.”  However, it’s not as if the Rules of Golf require remorseless literalism.  For example, Rule 20-1 clearly states that a player suffers a one-stroke penalty if she picks up her ball without marking it first.  Nevertheless, decision 2-4/3 excuses such a violation, despite the apparently “no exceptions” wording of the rule, when a player reasonably makes a mistake about whether her putt has been conceded in match play. 

Mind you, I am not claiming that only one interpretation of the rules is possible.  Rather, I’m pointing out that the rules used to punish Thompson were not as clear as people may think, and that the precise outcome of her situation is not truly “covered by the Rules.”  Thus, equity should have played a role in applying the rules to Thompson, and I believe that equity would have led away from finding her in breach of the rules.

It may be appropriate to come up with new rules about not accepting violations found by TV viewers or imposing a "statute of limitations" on how much time can pass before rules violations will not be acted upon.  However, it also behooves those responsible for applying golf's rules to think carefully about the role of equity in their administration of existing rules.  Observers of golf will keep calling in potential minor rules violations, and escalating all of them into tournament-altering incidents risks souring the public on the game itself.