‘I did not think the changes would be this dramatic.” That quote was from Keith Dambrot, head coach for the Akron men’s basketball team. Dambrot was speaking in reference to the new NCAA rules cutting out all hand-checking on the perimeter and almost cutting out all charges, but what’s most interesting about his quote is that he is actually on the NCAA rule committee. That’s right, a guy who is partly responsible for the new rules is surprised by just how much they favor team offenses.
This past Monday night, Ray Lewis offered to pay half of San Francisco 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brook’s impending fine for a seemingly harmless tackle on Drew Brees. Lewis exclaimed that he was offended that the NFL wasn’t treating defensive players like men, and many fans and analysts agree with his outrage.
While these two situations differ in sport, they are related in significance. Everyone knows that the biggest concern in the NFL involves strict defensive rules that stem from its fear of concussions (or, more accurately, the lawsuits that come with head injuries), but it is also because major sports leagues desire to increase offense in their games. Offensive plays make up the vast majority of the highlights that you’ll see on “SportsCenter,” so it’s logical for leagues to want to market their product with what sells best. Therefore, it’s only fair to ask: Are the leagues’ desires for more offense legitimate reasons to attempt to change the games?
As far as basketball goes, I actually like the rule changes in the NCAA. Of course, it’s always possible to go too far, but removing hand checks and charges doesn’t take much away from the actual game of basketball, and it should improve scoring. Does anyone remember Georgetown’s 37-36 nationally televised win over Tennessee last year? The Hoyas also beat Towson 46-40 and lost to Marquette 49-48. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying that many NCAA basketball teams could use a little more offense. Also, does anyone like how strictly charges are called at the collegiate or pro levels? In the NBA, games can be swung when a player establishes position a nanosecond before the offensive player gets there, which is way too late for anyone driving the lane – much less anyone as fast as a professional basketball player – to stop his momentum. I would love it if the NBA followed college basketball and cut down on its charging rates by either moving the hemisphere – in which a player cannot draw a charge – further from the basket or by expanding the amount of time that a player needs to have his position established before taking a charge. It’s also a minor issue from a player safety standpoint because, last time I checked, it’s not safe to have incredibly fast, huge professional athletes colliding at top speed.
The NFL, on the other hand, is going too far. As Steve Young pointed out following Ray Lewis’ take on defensive penalties, the NFL seems to penalize and fine players for plays that merely look bad. Ahmad Brooks made contact with Drew Brees’ shoulders and upper chest but avoided his head and neck … and he was fined. When former offensive players like Young are saying that the rules are unfair for defensive players, you know it’s bad.
Hockey might be the most interesting sport for this situation. Scoring in the NHL has been declining even as its revenues keep growing, and yet fans generally want more scoring. I’m skeptical that merely widening the goal – a popular suggestion – would really help. The NHL just mandated that goalies must have smaller pads than last year, and I’m fine with the rule, but I don’t think it gets at the heart of the problem. If you ask any hockey fan what his or her favorite game in recent years has been, there’s a decent chance that he or she will name a low-scoring playoff game that went into at least one overtime period. Why? The rush of these games is incredibly entertaining, even if there’s little excitement. It’s hard to prove, but I think that this signifies that the real draw for NHL fans is not the number of goals, but the number of quality scoring chances. Speaking for myself, watching two teams have unsuccessful quality scoring chance after unsuccessful quality scoring chance, with one finally resulting in a sudden-death OT goal, might give me a heart attack someday, but it’s maybe the most entertaining rush in sports. Because of that, I think that the NHL should expand the size of its ice surfaces to make them similar to that of European arenas. More open space to skate will result in more scoring chances, and, of course, a few more goals. But the fact that teams score on a low percentage of their quality chances is actually a huge draw in hockey, and the league shouldn’t forget that when trying to add in more offense.
From college basketball to the NFL to the NHL, leagues are trying to increase not only player safety but also highlight-reel-worthy offensive chances. The latter desire is worthy in many cases, but it is important that striving for Sportscenter highlights doesn’t ruin the integrity of the games.
Tom Hoff is a junior in the McDonough School of Business. Down to the Wire appears every Friday.
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