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.