Why do Sports Have Seasons?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why are sports played during certain seasons?

Thanks,
Jill


 

Dear Jill,

That’s an interesting question. Oddly enough I could find barely any answer for your question online. So… I’ll just have to make up an answer.

Sports seasons once made sense because the weather fit the sport. Football was played in the fall because it’s best played on cool, crisp autumn days. Playing football in the summer would be tortuous and dangerous for players running around in what basically amounted to heavy leather armor. Baseball cannot be played in the winter and because the season is so long and games have to be canceled on even the hint of rain, it’s important to get started as soon as spring begins to spring. Hockey is played on ice so… winter seems like a natural time for it especially in the days before super-powerful air-conditioners made it feasible to play hockey in South Florida and Texas. Since real Americans don’t play hockey, they needed something else to play in the winter. Enter Basketball, a sport that could be played in the summer but could be played in the winter!

Everything made some sort of intuitive sense until serious money got injected into sports leagues. With few exceptions, the more games a league scheduled, the longer the season, the more teams made the playoffs and the longer the playoffs were, the more money owners and players and television stations could make. This is where things started getting mushy. In 1960, when the NFL began it had a 12 game regular season. The next year they expanded to 14 games which lasted until 1978 when they added another 2 games. It’s been that way since then although they are now discussing moving to an 18 game season as part of the lockout negotiations. The first Super Bowl was held on Jan 15, 1967. This year’s Super Bowl was on February 6! Similar transformations have happened in the NBA and the NHL. The first NBA championship was on April 22, 1947. The Philadelphia Warriors beat the Chicago Stags. This year’s NBA championship ended on Sunday June 12! The NHL is not far behind. Actually it’s ahead. This year the NHL Finals ended on June 15. That’s not hockey weather!! The first NHL championship was back in 1893 and I can’t figure out the date, but the first modern championship ended on April 19. As for Baseball — the World Series has shifted from October 13 in 1903 to November 1.

Everything used to be better. Now nothing makes any sense. Or so says the grumpy old man…

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer

 

What's a Down in Football? I've Been Pretending to Know but I Don't!

Dear Sports Fan,

What’s a first down? How is it different from a 2nd down? And how many downs can you have? I’ve been pretending to understand football for years but i really have no idea.

Thanks,
Julia


Dear Julia,

Admittance is the first step and we are very proud of you for admitting that you don’t know what a down in football is. You are not alone — many people don’t! If you keep reading, by the end of this short blog post, you should be able to understand and explain the concept of a down!

When you are watching football you will often hear or see the phrase N Down and X.

  • N can be either First, Second, Third, or Fourth.
  • X can be any number from “inches” to 99 although it is normally between 10 and 0.

When a team gets the ball in football, they start out each possession with four chances to do something. Each chance (N) is equivalent to one play.

  • First down = Four chances left
  • Second down = Three chances left
  • Third down = Two chances left
  • Fourth down = Last chance!

If a team is successful in meeting their goal during any one of the downs, they get a brand new set of downs (four chances, not four new ones plus however many remained from their last set) and the pattern starts over.

You may be wondering what the goal is — the goal is to move the ball past an invisible[1] line which starts out 10 yards from where the ball is placed to start out on first down. This goal is expressed (X) as the number of yards between where the ball is now and where your team needs to get it to earn a new set of four downs.

  • First down and 10 = Four chances left to move the ball 10 yards
  • Third down and 2 = Two chances left to move the ball 2 yards
  • Second down and 18 = Three chances left to move the ball 18 yards[2]

The last wrinkle to learn is not about rules, but about strategy. Although it is totally legal to use all four downs to try to matriculate[3] the ball towards the yellow line, usually teams only try for their first three downs. Remember that if the team tries to move the ball past the line on fourth down and fails, the other team gets the ball right there. So, on fourth down teams will either punt the ball (conceding that the other team will get possession of the ball, but attempting to make them start from way on their side of the field) or try to kick a field goal (three points for the good guys) if they are close enough to try. In effect, this means the while First down = Four chances, normally only the first three of these “count.” On rare occasions, a team will chose to use their last chance to actually try to move the ball past the line. This is called “going for it on fourth” and is extremely exciting.

Now you won’t need to pretend anymore![4] Keep the questions coming,
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Although it’s not invisible anymore when you watch football on TV. Thanks to some work by Princeton Video Tech (Astle family represent!) the line your team is aiming at now shows up as a yellow line superimposed onto the screen.
  2. Also it means that something pretty bad/stupid happened on first down.
  3. This is one of those strange words that only seems to exist in higher education and football.
  4. Although if you still have questions, please leave a comment on this post and we will try to do some better explaining!

Why Don't Coaches Wear Suits Anymore?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why is it that when I look at classic footage the coaches are always wearing suits, but now they all look like models for sports authority?

Thanks Pat


 

Dear Pat,

On this issue, football’s no different than any other area of American business – forty years ago you couldn’t picture businessmen wearing anything other than a suit, even to sleep. Now, Mark Zuckerberg proudly states that he never wore a suit until he met the President.

The worst sideline dresser in the NFL is Bill Belichick, the Mark Zuckerberg of professional football. He’s the New England Patriots coach who looks like he should be holding a sign asking you for change…and is also widely acknowledged as the most brilliant coach of this era. Now, he’s partly a mad scientist, which is why he can get away with wearing cut-off sweatshirts (yes, they exist,) but if you’re a coach and you see the guy dominating your profession wearing pajamas to work, why the heck would you dress up in a suit?

There’s no doubt that it’s impressive to see Tom Landry, the legendary Cowboys coach,  striding along the sidelines in a sharp suit and a fedora, barking out orders. And I have no doubt that more coaches will come along and, as part of their persona, decide they want to look sharp on the sidelines – so the suit’s not gone forever — but if you give people the choice between dressing formally or dressing in Nike or dressing in Brooks Brothers, 95 percent of the time they’re going to take the tracksuit every time. That’s science.

Thanks for your question,
Dean Russell Bell

[Editors note: Hockey coaches still wear suits. Another of the many reasons it’s the best sport around. EF]

How do People Choose Teams to Root For?

Dear Sports Fan,

How do people choose a team to root for?

Thanks,
Meng


 

Dear Meng,

That’s a great question! It must seem somewhat unclear, especially in a big city like New York where there are many people from all over the country and world and where there are multiple local teams in most sports. I’ll do my best to break this down for you:

Primary Reasons:

  • Heredity — If you are a child of sports fans, they start indoctrinating you at an early age. There’s baby clothing, hats, and pennants. They take you to games, which is fun for any number of reasons that don’t involve sports but which gets associated in your mind with the home team. You learn to not bother Daddy and Mommy while they are watching their favorite team and that if you are in the room, you have to root with them!
  • Location — Most places in the country have a clear regional alliance with a set of sports teams. If you grow up in Western Pennsylvania you root for the Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates. If you grow up in Utah, you’re going to root for the Jazz. If you grow up in New Orleans, you are a Saints and Hornets fan. Why? Because they are the only games in town!

Heredity and Location probably account for 80% of all the sports allegiances. But, there are always oddballs like me whose parents didn’t have any strong allegiances (except to the Brooklyn Dodgers, but that’s another story…) and who grew up in an area like Central New Jersey where there were no clear home teams in some sports. When that happens, people tend to fall back on…

Secondary Reasons:

  • Style — It is rare, but sometimes a team will play with such panache that their actual play attracts fans. Even more rare is a team that plays so poorly that they repel fans. This was the case with my favorite hockey team. I started watching Hockey seriously in 1993-94 and even though I was from New Jersey, I quickly decided that I could not in good conscience root for the New Jersey Devils. Their strategy in those days was to compensate for their lack of skill by playing a rigidly disciplined, passive, and defensive style of hockey that involved negating their opponents skill by hanging onto their shirts the whole game… meanwhile, over in Pittsburgh, the Penguins were playing a wide open, offensive game. They tried to beat you 9-8 instead of 1-0. They were fun to watch and I soon became a fan. Other examples of teams whose style could have attracted fans are the Philadelphia Flyers on the 1970s (they beat their opponents bloody,) the Dutch national soccer team of the late 60s and early 70s who pioneered the “Total Football” style, or the Brazilian national soccer team of the… well… just about anytime…
  • Bandwagon — Sometimes it’s not about how a team plays, but how well they do. Most people enjoy rooting for a winning team, so winning teams tend to have more fans. There was a pretty cool article about this the other day on The Big Lead that showed that Super Bowl winning football teams see a 4% increase in fans identifying them as their favorite team in the year after they win. If you know someone who is a Lakers, Yankees, and Cowboys fan, this is probably why.[1]
  • College — This one is pretty straight forward. When it comes to College sports most people root for their Alma Mater. Go Rutgers!
  • Friendship — When you watch sports with a good friend, as long as it doesn’t go against your own favorite teams, you begin to pull for the teams they root for. Over time, these topical rooting experiences add up. If you don’t have a favorite curling, swimming, or netball team, maybe you adopt theirs.
  • Video Games — Believe it or not, I think a lot of people root for teams at least in part because they enjoyed playing as them in a video game. Sports video games are a great way to get into a sport that you’re not familiar with and while playing them you do develop a relationship with the team you most often play as.

Hope this answered your question,
Ezra Fischer

 

 

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Also stop being friends with them.

Can you Explain the Head Injury Issue?

Dear Sports Fan,

Can some one other than Malcolm Gladwell explain the whole head injury issue? How is Toyota going to fix it and why is no sport but football getting flack?

Thanks,
Sarah


 

Dear Sarah,

The bottom line is, science is getting better – so while we probably always knew that people smashing into other people (or objects) wasn’t good for them, we can now point to a specific brain injury that results, and it ain’t pretty: chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which basically means that, if you studied some athlete’s brains at 50, you’d think they were 85 year olds suffering from dementia.

Why? There’s a lot of talk about concussions, and that’s the simplest, most straightforward explanation. If you’ve ever had a concussion, you know it’s a miserable experience – you also know that after you get the first one, you’re more likely to get a second one, then a third. If you’re a football player, that’s basically an occupational hazard. What we’re learning, though, is that each subsequent concussion has more serious long term impacts – and can lead to early onset of dementia or other emotional/depression issues. It’s slightly easier to deal with the kinds of massive hits that most frequently cause concussions because, at least in football, these are mostly blindside hits on players who don’t know they’re about to get clobbered and can’t defend themselves. These hits can be phased out of the game by changing the rules. They’re trying to do that now.

What also contributes to this is the so-called “sub-concussive” hits – the thousands of times a player will clash with someone and jostle the brain around in the skull just a little bit. This is one of the things that makes football the center of the brain injury story. In football, offensive and defensive linemen clash every single play with the force of a small automobile accident. Turns out these add up too, especially when you consider these guys have been playing football since they were kids. All of those little hits keep accumulating, and the concern now is that this is an issue that’s even bigger than pro football – that college and maybe even high school players may do some long-term brain damage. That issue is much more difficult to address, because you can’t get rid of that type of contact – it happens every play, all over the field.

Which brings us to Toyota. There is no silver bullet to this problem. The solution will involve a combination of rule changes and improved technology – and acknowledgement that the problem will never be truly solved. People will suffer some amount of brain damage, both because we want to see football and there are people who are willing to take the risk to play it. But the technology involves some really cool research that allows scientists to tell exactly how much force is being delivered with each hit, how the impact is distributed across the body – and, theoretically, how to design equipment to ensure the brain is the recipient of less of that impact. Toyota’s part of that effort because 1. They’ve got an image problem,[1] 2. They’ve got lots of engineers and 3. They’re smart enough to know that nothing makes a foreign company feel less foreign than making America’s favorite game safer and

That last point explains why football is taking the brunt of this. It’s the biggest sport, and sports business, in America today. So while other sports have similar issues – hockey, boxing, Mixed Martial Arts – the research hasn’t been as widespread because those sports aren’t as popular and there aren’t as many kids playing them. It’s only a matter of time though. The science is only going to get better, and I don’t think there’s anyone who thinks that what we learn is going to make us feel better.

The only question is, is there a point at which Americans – the fans and the players – will say the risk is no longer worth taking?

Thanks for the question,
Dean Russell Bell

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Runaway Priuses and Camries + Ford resurgence = need for image makeover.

Any Chance For a Football-free Year?

Dear Sports Fan,

Can you please explain the NFL Lockout? I’m seriously hoping for a year with no football, and I’d like to better understand how this may occur.

Andrew


 

Dear Andrew,

Last part first — I can imagine several reasons you want a year with no football, but I’m afraid to say the lockout is not the answer.

Think about what happened when the screenwriters went on strike.  Did TV stop? Far from it – instead, producers dialed up three times as many episodes of the Real Housewives of Golddigger County, and everyone without Netflix STILL thanked them for the privilege. Even for the most talented people on TV, it was far from an inspiration: Conan grew a beard, the Colbert Report pronounced the t’s in its title and Jay Leno…well, the writer’s strike had no noticeable impact on the quality of Jay Leno’s show.

Still – much like the writer’s strike, if the lockout isn’t resolved, there’ll be two outcomes, neither of which will improve your quality of life:

  1. Replacement players – the fans in your life are still obsessed with football, but have even MORE to complain about because the quality of play plummets .
  2. No one plays (professional) football – the fans in your life spend week after week bemoaning the lack of pro football. They won’t get over it. They won’t turn to other pursuits. They’ll watch twice as much college football (Yeah – that doesn’t go away) but, like any junkie, they’ll soon find that twice of the stepped-on product won’t feel half as good as the real thing. This is a void in their life that can’t and won’t be filled.

First part last — the lockout is a lot like any dispute between labor and management, except these individual laborers are more famous and admired than their managers. You can disregard the noise and focus on a few key things.

First, management wants what management always wants: the biggest possible piece of the revenue pie. Whether it’s revenue from the rights they sell allowing NBC, CBS, Fox and ESPN to broadcast the games, the tickets they sell to those games,  or the $14 stomach-lining-incinerating hot dog that you buy at the game, they want as much as they can get. They’re businessmen, and it’s silly to think they want anything else. Some of them talk about how small their profit margin is, and how expensive it is to build a stadium (even with you, the taxpayer, picking up half the tab), especially in smaller media markets (even though they fought tooth and nail to bring a franchise to said market). But mostly they just want more money, and you can’t really blame them, cause that’s what they do.

The players want a bigger slice of that revenue pie too, and you can’t blame them either. But what they also want – and what puts them at an inherent disadvantage in the revenue fight – is some benefits that acknowledge the physical toll the game takes on them. Whether it’s cutting down on mandatory off-season workouts or guaranteeing better pensions and health benefits for retired NFL players, the players have interests outside a simple revenue split, which gives the owners more chips at the bargaining table.

Still, the players are holding their own in court, and as a result, things seem to be moving towards a solution. And, not to try to shame you, but that’s a good thing all around. Not because crime will go up if there’s no football, which is what Ray Lewis, a perennial All-pro linebacker said – though he does have credibility given his personal off-season experience[1] – but because of the collateral damage a sustained lockout would cause. Cause if you make a living selling hot-dogs, beer and jerseys at football games, you probably don’t have a lot of viable alternatives.

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. During the 2000 off-season, Ray Lewis was involved in an altercation involving himself and two of his friends and another group of people in a nightclub. Two of the men from the other group were stabbed to death. Lewis and his friends were less than cooperative with police, though he ultimately agreed to testify against his friends in return for a sentence of probation – his testimony must have been somewhat ineffective, given that they were both acquitted. Lewis eventually reached civil settlements with the families of both victims. Ahem

What is Being Offside?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is being offside and why does it cause so much screaming in the bar next-door?

Thanks,
Max


 

Dear Max

Offside rules are about time and space. They are about a line, an event and an order. Although they are probably the most misunderstood, most shouted about, most infuriating rules in sports, they are deceptively simple. Offside rules exist in most of the most-watched sports in the world. Offside is the rule in soccer; it has caused more bloodshed than many major border conflicts or minor religions. It is an important part of hockey, can mean the difference between winning and losing in football, and although it is disguised in basketball, it still has major implications. If you understand the role being offside plays in all of these sports, you will understand a lot about the nature of each game.

In every sport, being offside means that a player is in a position he or she shouldn’t be in when a particular event happens. I’ll repeat it: being offside means that a player is in a position he or she shouldn’t be in when a particular event happens. That’s it. That’s the whole thing. You’ve got it! Now all we need to do is fill in the where and the when.

Hockey
Where: If the player is in the offensive zone; the area between the blue line closest to the goal his team is trying to score on and the boards…
When: The puck is moved from outside this area into this area…
HE IS OFFSIDE!

Soccer
Where: If the player is closer to the goal she is trying to score on than fewer than two players of the opposing team…
When: The ball leaves the foot of a player on her team who intends to pass her the ball…
SHE IS OFFSIDE!

Football
Where: If a player on defense[1] moves across the line of scrimmage (an imaginary line across the field of play where the ball is placed before a play starts…)
When: Before the ball is snapped to start the play…
HE IS OFFSIDE (If the player touches another player on the other team, this is called “encroachment” which is much more fun to say than offside.)

Basketball
Where: If a player is on the side of the court that she is trying to defend…
When: When she has the ball for more than eight seconds after her team initially gains possession of it…
SHE IS OFFSIDE (This is called the “eight-second rule.”)

Where: If a player dribbles the ball on the side of the court that he is trying to defend…
When: After his team has had the ball on the side of the court that they are trying to score on…
HE IS OFFSIDE (This is called a “back-court violation.”)

Notice how the way the offside rule is written seems to suggest something about the game? The soccer rule favors the defense in a big way — if a player can’t pass to one of his teammates unless he has at least two defenders between his teammate and the goal, why are we surprised that there isn’t more scoring? The hockey rule also favors the defense, just a little less. Note how the rule makes it so that if a defender can clear the puck from his third of the ice into the middle third, the other team’s offense needs to totally reset by leaving the offensive zone. Basketball, on the other hand, seems to require offense. If a player cannot stay on her side for more than eight seconds, she’s going to be forced to get her team in a position to score, isn’t she?

See how simple the offside rules can be? What other questions do you have?

Thanks,
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Before a play starts, only one offensive player is allowed to move at once. If any of the big guys in a row even flinch, they are called for a “false start” which is more or less an offside rule.

Why are sports fans obsessed with injuries?

Dear Sports Fan,

The sports fan in my life disregards my injuries and illnesses as mere complaints until I am either completely incapacitated or bleeding prodigiously. Yet the mere mention of a potential injury to any appendage of one of his teams’ players sends him into Colonel Kurtz mode – The horror, the horror – before he spends an hour on WebMd trying to identify a miracle cure. Any chance any of that sympathy can be directed my way?

Hurt in Houston

— — —

Dear Hurt in Houston,

Let me put it bluntly: no. When you get sick or injured, (knock wood) you get better and your life goes on. Your fan’s favorite athlete, or a key player on his team? Well…

Injuries are one of the most frustrating things in sports. Think about sitting at your computer doing work – not one of those mind-numbing, I’m half-working and half-googling to see if I can buy the dress Kate Middleton wore to her engagement announcement, but really jamming on a project, getting excited about it, rocking back and forth in your chair and laughing to yourself from time to time cause your brilliance surprises even you. Now, imagine the power goes out.  Your first thought is pure horror: all is lost.

There’s uncertainty – when’s the last time I saved? Does it even matter? Will it even remember that? There’s the period of irrational hope as you reboot when the power comes back on – I’m sure Bill Gates saw this power outage coming, there’s NO WAY Word wouldn’t save automatically. Then you login and pull up Word and, really, all you can do is hope.

That’s the best comparison I can come up with to an injury: no matter how well everything is going for your fan’s team, they are always one injury away from catastrophe, and there is NOTHING anyone can do about it. Absolutely nothing. That injury can happen in any number of ways – horrifically (Joe Theisman, a Redskins quarterback having his leg broken in two), hysterically (Bill Gramatica, an NFL placekicker, tearing an ACL celebrating a field goal) , frequently (Vince Carter[1]) and downright bizarrely (Shaq, the 7 foot, 300 pound beastly freak of an athlete who, for a chunk of his career, was felled by an injury to his big toe) –  but there’s no recourse for the team or your fan. All you can do is watch the athlete get carried off the field and try to convince yourself that it’s not nearly as bad as it looks and that yes, elbow joints are definitely meant to rotate 360 degrees.

One other note: an injury to your fan’s favorite athlete is a particularly crushing blow. One thing all sports fans are acutely aware of is that we have a limited amount of time with our athletes, and even less time to watch them while they’re in their prime (whereas, theoretically, they have their entire life to spend with you. But I digress). Age will slow them down even if injuries don’t. So when we see an injury to our favorite player we think two things. 1. I just lost some of my quality time with this guy; and, 2. Thanks to this injury, this guy may never be as incredible an athlete again. Think about that: in what other job can a single, freak occurrence ensure that someone will never perform at a high level again?

Hope this helps,
Dean Russell Bell

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Note on Vince Carter: Vince Carter was an enormously talented basketball player who never fulfilled his potential because of his complete lack of heart and desire. He’s like the guy in your office who takes so many sick days for so many absurd reasons that you can start to predict when it’ll happen – you even have an office pool to bet on which ailment he’ll claim on a given day. It’s 80 and sunny – I’ve got $20 says Bob’s calling out with a stomach flu! That was Vince Carter – the man made tens of millions of dollars, but the mere suggestion of physical contact was enough to send him sprawling with a look on his face making clear that what just happened was some kind of historical injustice.