Why Are U.S. Open Tennis Courts Blue?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why are U.S. Open tennis courts blue? What happened to the normal green and red variety that we all played on growing up?

Thanks,
Simon

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Dear Simon,

U.S. Open tennis courts have been painted blue since 2005 primarily because the organizers of the tournament thought they could make more money with blue courts than the traditional green and red variety. The blue court is good for its organizers for reasons of branding and visibility. Since 2005, many other tennis tournaments have copied the U.S. Open and made their own court color changes.

The most understandable reason why the U.S. Open and other tournaments switched from green and red painted asphalt to blue is that it makes the tennis ball easier to see for players and spectators. The tennis ball itself is a shocking neon green-yellow. This is the kind of green-yellow normally found in road signs or reflective vests because it’s very easy to see. Still, tracking a green ball going a hundred miles an hour or more is likely to be easier if done against a background that provides a good contrast. A duller green isn’t going to offer must color contrast. Red is opposite green in a color wheel but the green of the tennis ball is a lot closer to yellow than it is green green.

In this clever color wheel from asmartbear.com, you can see that blue or purple are better opposites for a tennis ball than red or green.
In this clever color wheel from asmartbear.com, you can see that blue or purple are better opposites for a tennis ball than red or green.

Therefore, a blue or purple is going to create the best contrast to spot a moving tennis ball. This contrast is particularly important for television viewers. Not only are television viewers the largest group of people to watch the game, they’re also the one that injects the most money into the sport. No wonder their viewing experience was at the core of the decision in 2005 to shift to blue courts.

The other key reason to paint the U.S. Open courts blue is branding. In 2005, when the United States Tennis Association made the decision to move to a blue court, they did so, not just for the U.S. Open, but for all the major tennis tournaments played in the U.S. and organized by their group. As USTA executive Arlen Kantarian was quoted as saying in this espn.com article:

In addition, it provides an instant visual link between the US Open Series tournaments and the U.S. Open, helping to create a unified ‘regular season’ for tennis leading up to the U.S. Open.

If the USTA can create a visual signature, they may be able to promote their lesser tournaments as being just like the popular U.S. Open. Using color to promote a sports brand is nothing new, even in Tennis, as Christine Brennan pointed out in her 2005 USA Today article on the subject, the failed World Team Tennis league tried the gimmick in 1974. This time though, it seems to have succeeded. Or at least, the trend of colored courts has become very mainstream. The Australian Open changed from green to blue in 2008. Other big tournaments have experimented with purple courts. On a smaller level, on municipal and personal courts around the country, the demand for unique colors has increased. According to Andrew Cohen for Athletic Business resurfacing in green and red has dropped from about 95 percent of the market to between 50 and 75 percent. It’s common now for “sales reps [to] have to step in… to perhaps dissuade a court owner from choosing garish or excessively loud color combinations”

To close on a personal note, my instincts are often traditional when it comes to sports. The biggest change in tennis surfaces over the past fifty years hasn’t been the colors, it’s been the surfaces themselves. Until 1974, all four of the major tennis tournaments were played on grass or clay. When the U.S. Open and later the Australian open moved to asphalt, they kept the green and red surfaces of grass and clay as a way of connecting with their pasts. Shifting the color to blue doesn’t have much of an effect on the way I watch or think about them but it does make me treasure the natural grass of Wimbledon and traditional red-clay of the French Open.

Whatever the surface, enjoy watching the tennis!

Thanks,
Ezra Fischer

Wimbledon Men's Finals 2014: Federer vs. Djokovic

Federer 2014We all know the story: can the aging great champion hold off his younger competitors for just one more day? The thing is, that story was done for Roger Federer years ago after he was caught and surpassed, first by Rafael Nadal and later by Novak Djokovic, his opponent today. At age 32, which in tennis years is old, old, old, that classic plot just doesn’t work for Federer anymore. It’s actually hard to find sports parallels for what he’s doing in this year’s Wimbledon. Now Federer is John Glenn returning to space at age 77; he’s Miss Marple solving crimes in her dotage; he’s Sean Connery headlining action movies into his late sixties. Just by getting to this year’s finals, Federer has done the remarkable. If he were to win, he’ll propel himself straight into the inconceivable.

Tune in (or click in if you’re one of the millions of people who no longer tune their televisions…) to ESPN to see what happens. The match starts in a few minutes at 9:00 a.m. ET but could go for as long as four or five hours. I’ll be rooting for Miss Marple. Will you?

Federer – Nadal For the 33rd Time

We take a brief break from Olympics previews and Super Bowl hype to talk about a tennis match that’s going to be played on Friday morning at 3:30 a.m. ET in Australia between two rapidly aging tennis players. Why is this worth breaking into our regularly scheduled programming? Because for almost 14 years, since the first time they played, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have been the most compelling personal rivalry in sports and there’s a chance that this could be the last time they play until they’re both on the senior exhibition tour. So grab your television remote, program your DVR for ESPN at 3:30 a.m.. Don’t make any mistake about it — delete some stuff, add an hour or two to the scheduled end time, and make sure nothing else supersedes it. Then figure out how to call out of work on Friday.

What’s so Great About their Rivalry

nadal federer
Federer, regal, Nadal, resolute.

[Editor’s note — I wrote another post about Nadal and Federer way back in 2011. It’s still available here.]

There’s many factors that play into a rivalry. One is the consistent excellence of both players in comparison to the rest of their competition. During the heart of their careers, from 2003 to 2011, Federer or Nadal won 26 of 32 grand slam (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, or the U.S. Open) tournaments. More impressive in a way is that for their careers, all but three of their losses in Grand Slam finals have been to each other. From 2005 through 2010 either Nadal or Federer was the number one tennis player in the world and the other was second.

As remarkable as those numbers are, they are augmented by the ease with which Nadal and Federer’s rivalry can be translated into narratives. Federer is almost five years older and was established as the number one tennis player in 2004. For three years beginning in 2005, Nadal sat in the number two spot. Able to surpass all his other competition but not Federer. Then in 2008, the younger Nadal finally overtook Federer. Time takes its toll on everyone, right? Not so fast — Federer battled back to be number one in 2009, only to have it stolen back by Nadal in 2010. The story would have been great if it had just been “younger great player overtakes older great player” but the back and forth, the rallies by each player that mimic the rallies within a tennis match, make it epic.

Epic too is the stylistic clash between the two players. Federer is often described as a magician. When he is at his best, he makes creative, surprising shots that no one else would think of, much less have the ability to make; and he makes them seem effortless. Nadal is his natural opposite. He’s a fierce competitor who wears his opponents down by taking their best shots and returning them faster and harder than they were hit. Federer is right handed, Nadal is left handed. Federer dresses himself like the tennis royalty he is, replete with golden insignias and elegant tennis bags. Nadal favors neon colors, sleeveless shirts, and at one point in his career, capris. Federer projects calm and control on the court. Nadal is all furious grunts and obsessive compulsive pre-serve routines.

Although it used to be common, Federer and Nadal have only played each other twice in grand slam tournaments since 2009. This Friday will be the third time in the last five years and there’s a chance it could be the last. Federer is 32 years old, which is quite old for a tennis player to be competitive. Nadal is only 27 but has been hampered by serious knee injuries in the last few years. It’s definitely a “fourth-quarter” competition towards the end of their rivalry. This only makes it more compelling to me. I love it when two players who have such history with each other play. There’s a sentimentality, a respect between the players that is rare; and a deep seeded hatred. Regardless of what they say in public, while they are still playing, these guys want to beat no one more than the other. That this might be their last significant meeting only brings the magnifying glass down a little closer. And based on the weather in Australia these days, things could get pretty hot!

Is Tennis Sexist? Andy Murray at Wimbledon

Dear Sports Fan,

Is tennis sexist? After Andy Murray won at Wimbledon last week I heard a bunch of stuff about gender politics. What gives?

Thanks,
Amy

The Championships - Wimbledon 2013: Day Thirteen
No one claims Andy Murray is sexist, but what about the sport he plays?

—- —- —

Dear Amy,

I don’t know if tennis is inherently sexist. There are a couple things about the sport and its culture and history that are controversially gendered if not out and out sexist. Two things happened last week that brought these feelings to the surface.

Last Sunday Andy Murray won the Men’s Finals at Wimbledon. Wimbledon is one of the four big tennis tournaments of the year and the only one that takes place in England. It drips with history and nationalism. The last time a British man had won Wimbledon was 1936 and before last week the British people were desperate for a local champion. Way back in 2006 ESPN ran an article about this entitled “Decline of the British Empire” in which it detailed the continued failure of the best British men’s tennis player at the time, Tim Henman:

“WIMBLEDON, England — The autopsy was predictably grim. For the 13th consecutive year, Tim Henman — led by the dour and disheartened British scribes — discussed his failure at the All England Club.”

The same year, the ESPN scribe Greg Garber identified a 19 year old Andy Murray as being the future hope of the British people. Seven years later, he finally won. As you might expect, the reaction of the British fans was enormous. Deadspin.com re-posted the almost messianic image on the front cover of the English newspaper The Times. After 77 years a Brit had won Wimbledon!! But wait, hold on a second, said a few small voices, hadn’t some British women won Wimbledon in the intervening years between 1936 and 2013? One of those voices, that of the feminist blogger and media personality Chloe Angyal, was in tweet form, retweeted almost 20,000 times:

Murray is indeed the first Brit to win Wimbledon in 77 years unless you think women are people.

The reverberations of this statement made it into the mainstream press even in England where The Guardian ran an article about the controversy and pointed out that not one but four British women have won Wimbledon since the last British man before Murray won the tournament.

Meanwhile, also on Twitter, another gendered conflict was brewing. A fan (or theoretically a troll) tweeted Andy Murray to say that he thought Serena Williams, the great women’s tennis champion, could beat Murray on grass. Murray went with it and tweeted back that he thought so to and that maybe someday they would play. For those readers who are tennis fans or over the age of 50 this probably brings back memories of Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs’ Battle of the Sexes in 1973. Riggs was a former top men’s professional tennis player. At the age of 55 he became one of the sport’s great villains by claiming that women’s tennis was inferior to men’s and that he could, even at his age, beat top female players. His challenge was taken up first by Margaret Court, a great women’s player, and then after he beat her, by Billie Jean King. King was another great women’s player but not as great as Margaret Court, who won 24 major tournaments in her career, which remains a record. King was and is much more high profile off the court as an advocate for the game of tennis and for sexual equality. King beat Riggs soundly in front of a television audience of over 50 million.

The proposed match between Murray and Williams has none of the chauvinistic feel of the Riggs v. King spectacle. Both players are close to the top of their abilities and, though this would likely make it less of a close contest (Serena herself said she doubted she’d “win a point,”) it also significantly lowers the stakes when it comes to humiliation. Both players have responded to the idea as a fun exhibition for the sport of tennis and my guess is that if the match happens it will be all about making creative points on the court, not political points.

1973 was a breakthrough year for women’s tennis in another way — it was the year that the U.S. Open, the first major tennis tournament to do so, equalized the prize money between men and women. It took a long time for the other three major tournaments to follow suit. The Australian Open equalized in 2000 and the final two, the French Open and Wimbledon, didn’t until 2007. These moves have not been without criticism from players who point out that men and women tennis players are getting paid for different amounts of work. What’s that you say? That’s right, men continue to play best three out of five sets in major tournaments while the women play best two out of three. This may not sound like a big deal but it means that women’s finals at Wimbledon have averaged around 90 minutes in the past 30 or so years, while the men’s finals have averaged 150 minutes.[1] Many protest that the message this sends is that women are less able to hold up against the rigors of a long match, and tennis will remain at least somewhat sexist as long as this is true.[2] As the UK Telegraph concludes in their article about this conundrum, “equal pay can ultimately be justified only be equal play.”

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Possibly ironically, I got this stat from a blog post that used it to argue in favor of giving male tennis players more money for winning than female tennis players.
  2. Any readers who think that women actually couldn’t stand the rigors of a long match, please read Brian Phillips’ excellent Grantland piece about the Iditarod which features Aliy Zirkle, a woman who places a close second in the 1,000 mile week-long pain-fest of a dogsled race.

What Does Deuce Mean in Tennis?

Dear Sports Fan,

The scoring at Wimbledon is confusing enough with the weird way they count points but it gets very weird when all of a sudden the score is “deuce.” What does deuce mean in tennis?

Thanks,
Aaron

wimbledon_centre_court_roof_p300609_aeltc1
As nice as this looks, the fans wouldn’t want to be here forever.

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Dear Aaron,

You’re right! The scoring in tennis is a little unconventional. We explained the basic tennis scoring a couple years ago during Wimbledon in another post:

To win a a game you have to be the first person to 5 points… Just to be confusing instead of counting 0-1-2-3-4-5, games are scored love-15-30-40-game.

The trick is that, like a lot of games we used to play as kids when we didn’t want to go in for dinner, you have to win by two points to win the game. This means that if both players get to 40, the game cannot be won by winning just one more point. Instead of counting up and up (50, 60, 70, 80, etc.) until one player won two points in a row and was therefore 20 points ahead in scoring, tennis switches over to a relative count instead of an absolute count of the score.

So 40-40 is called deuce. Deuce literally means “two” so it’s easy to remember that the score is even between the two players (or teams if you are watching doubles tennis.) At the French open, it’s even easier to remember because instead of saying “deuce” they say “egalite” or equality. From there, the score is relative. When a player scores one point, the score changes to “advantage [that player’s name]. If that player scores again, they will be up by two points and will win the game. If the other player scores, the players will be tied again and the score returns to deuce or egalite and the pattern repeats itself.

Repetition is key because this is one of the few parts of a sports game that could, theoretically, go on FOREVER. A tennis game, once it reaches deuce, could become an infinite loop if the players alternate winning points. Lots of sports have theoretically infinite elements but they usually involve overtime or extra-innings. The only other “normal” element of a sport that I can think of which has the same capacity for going on forever is in baseball. A fouled ball (one hit backwards or sideways out of the field of play) counts against the batter as a strike but cannot create the third and final strike against the batter. Therefore, once a batter has two strikes against him or her, the at bat will continue as long as each pitch is fouled off.

Not to worry though, infinity is a long time and both scenarios are about as unlikely as monkeys randomly composing Hamlet.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

What Happened to Nadal at Wimbledon? Was it the Tennis Court Surface?

Dear Sports Fan,

I just saw Rafael Nadal lose in the first round of Wimbledon – but I thought he just won a huge tournament last week – what gives? I heard an announcer say it was the surface of the tennis court.

Thanks,
Jeremy

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As physically imposing as Nadal is, years of playing stressfully have left him susceptible to upsets on faster surfaces like grass.
As physically imposing as Nadal is, years of playing stressfully have left him susceptible to upsets on faster surfaces like grass.

Dear Jeremy,

Thanks for the question – you’ve put your finger on one of the most interesting facets of tennis: different tournaments are played on different surfaces, and some of them are so distinct that it can seem like another sport.

First, a little context: Nadal is one of the most talented players of all time, and not just because he picks a wedgie with remarkable grace. While he has been most successful on clay courts (most popular among continental European players, who grow up playing on clay courts) he is one of the few players who is so talented that he can win on any surface. He’s completed the career Grand Slam, which means he has won each of the four major tennis tournaments – the Australian Open (hard-court), the French Open (clay court), Wimbledon (grass court) and U.S. Open (hard-court). This is an exclusive club and winning all four of these tournaments speaks to the strength of a player’s overall game. Most players specialize, or at least do better, on one surface over another.

That’s not just a matter of familiarity – the game is very different depending on the surface. Clay court tennis is a slower game – because the clay physically slows the ball down and causes it to bounce higher – and rewards consistency, the ability to put spin on the ball (because the clay accents the ball’s spin,) and defense. Nadal is so athletic and quick that it is virtually impossible to get a shot past him on the slower clay.

On grass the ball bounces lower and moves faster – which, historically, has favored more aggressive players and hard servers like the great Pete Sampras whose relentless attacks were more successful on the quick surface. Hard court tennis is somewhere in between the two surfaces.

Nadal was not always successful on grass but he worked at it and got good enough to challenge and beat Roger Federer, the premier grass court – and all around – player of his generation.

The difference between the two players – who have been friendly rivals and are regarded as the two best players of all time – explains Nadal’s loss today. Watching Federer play tennis is like watching a cheetah run: it’s smooth, effortless and otherwise clearly indicative of something in its element. Watching Nadal play is like watching a construction crew jack-hammering a street: it’s unnatural and you can tell the body is having trouble absorbing the shock. Federer has been remarkably consistent because his game and style of play has minimized the impact on his body whereas Nadal has subjected his body to constant and brutal abuse. On clay, he can play hurt and still gut out a win because he is so much better at the clay court game – but in other tournaments his advantage is less pronounced and, in the case of Wimbledon, he’s susceptible to upsets like the one he experienced today.

Thanks for the question,
Dean Russell Bell

How Does Overtime Work in Different Sports?

Dear Sports Fan,
How does overtime work in different sports? I’ve been watching more hockey this year and I know that overtime in the playoffs is different from overtime in the regular season. Are other sports like that too?
Thanks,
Sonja

Dear Sonja,

To quote the great Kanye West in honor of his latest album, “like old folks pissing, it all Depends.” Each sport has its own approach to how to proceed with competition if the score is tied after regulation time has expired. Like you say about hockey, even within each sport it can differ depending on whether the game takes place during the regular season or the playoffs. So while it may seem like I’m getting paid by the number of times I write “sometimes” in this post, that’s just the way overtime works.[1]
In general, extra time formats in sports (overtime)  fall into a few buckets:
  • Sudden Death: the most exciting two words in sports. This format is so dramatically named because the first team to allow their opponent to score loses the game immediately. This adds a heightened layer of tension that’s pretty much unparalleled. Sudden death doesn’t necessarily mean
    Sports: hockey, soccer (sometimes), football (sometimes), baseball (kind of), golf (sometimes).
  • Extra Period: This is essentially when an extra period of time is added and whoever is leading at the end of that extra period wins. It still involves added tension but doesn’t quite have the audience on a knife’s edge, since a single score doesn’t necessarily dictate the outcome.
    Sports: basketball (always), baseball (again kind of. In baseball they play a full inning, so essentially the team that has its turn to hit first in the inning is playing Extra Period but the team that hits second can be in a Sudden Death type situation.)
  • Shootouts: The ultimate Mano a Mano sports showdown. Each team picks its best payers (five in soccer, three in hockey) and each one gets a chance to score on the opposing team’s goalie. Some dismiss it as a gimmick but – for the viewer – there are few things more dramatic than seeing an athlete alone on the field or rink with the weight of the entire game on their shoulders. Of course if the shootout is tied after the allotted players have shot, you get a sudden death shootout, where the first player to miss costs his or her team the game.
    Sports: Hockey, soccer (in both cases this assumes you make it through the extra periods with neither team scoring and in the case of hockey that the game is during the regular season)
  • None: Although increasingly rare, there are some situations in sport where if a game is tied at the end of regular time the two teams shake hands, walk off the field, and neither team wins. It’s a tie! In the old days in soccer two teams that ended the game in a tie would go home, rest up, and play again in a few days in order to get a result.
You may have noticed that we haven’t covered football at all in this post. That’s because football is so absurdly complicated in its overtime rules that it is deserving of its own post. The college football rules are different than the professional ones… which differ from the regular season to the playoffs.
Thanks for your question and look out for a football overtime post soon,
Dean Russell Bell
Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Editor’s note. Mister Bell is not being paid at all for this post.

The Return Heard Round the World — Djokovic Beats Federer

Dear Sports Fan,

What’s up with yous? No posts for more than two weeks?? What are we, chopped liver?

Dear Sports Fan Fan


 

Dear Dear Sports Fan Fan,

Apologies for the long interregnum between posts. We will be trying to ramp back up to close to a post a day in the coming week or two!

Today I’m going to repost an article that Brian Phillips wrote for Grantland.

In it he recaps the amazing tennis match from Saturday in the U.S. Open semifinals between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. In it he describes how Djokovic survived two Federer match points and came back to win the match. He wonders about the meaning of this:

We want athletes to be able to explain sports. Sport, at its most basic, is about physically realizing intentions — calculating the angle, plotting the spin, executing the shot. So surely the people who have the intentions, the people whose inner lives sport is expressing in some complicated way, are in the best position to tell us what really happens on the court. And to a certain extent that’s true. But one of the reasons it’s so scary to imagine going into the postmatch press conference as a loser is that it’s not entirely true. What happens during a match may concern you to an emotionally devastating degree, but what happens can also turn on tiny fluctuations of chance so complicated that they are astoundingly difficult to articulate — minute physical differences that fall within any conceivable margin of error, emotional swings that could have gone either way and went against you, who knows why. These sorts of breaks are often monstrously unfair. And as with The Shot and The Confrontation, they tend to take on outsize importance in matches that are otherwise very close. Meaning that the greatest contests, the ones whose outcomes are most exalting for the winners and most devastating for the losers, are the ones most likely to be decided by infinitesimal turns of luck.

I have to say that I think he’s taking a little away from the greatness of the match and the greatness of that moment. Let’s watch it:

What I see in Djokovic’s face before the shot is someone who is resigned to his situation as he sees it. He knows that he has only a small chance of winning and he knows exactly what that chance is. He knows that his only hope is to take a low-percentage chance. He’s going to guess — to over-commit to where Federer might serve. If he’s right he’ll be able to win the point decisively. If not, Federer gets an ace and the match is over. Here’s where the greatness comes in — by this point they have been playing for over four hours. Djokovic has seen 162 Federer first serves. They’ve played 22 other times before Saturday. Without a coach talking in his ear, or a catcher flashing signs at him, Djokovic has to decide what gamble to make. Does he commit outside or inside? How many steps behind the base-line should he be? Should he return cross-court? Facing defeat in front of thousands of people, exhausted by four hours of tennis in the hot sun, annoyed at a crowd which has supported his opponent all day, Djokovic makes up his mind… and he’s right.

Sure it was lucky — but it was lucky like Larry Bird was lucky when he stole Isiah Thomas’ inbound pass, like Muhammed Ali was lucky not to get knocked out while he was rope-a-doping George Foreman.

Ezra Fischer

Why Aren't the Rules the Rules? (Part 2)

Dear Sports Fan,

Reading about the bad call in the Pittsburgh/Atlanta game last night reminded me of something I’ve always wondered. Whether it’s because the ref is looking the other way (literally or figuratively), or because of just plain human error, the rules in sports are often either not enforced, or not enforced correctly. But in many cases, it seems like people just consider that an integral part of the game! Especially given the increasing ability of technology to settle disputes, why not just come up with what the real rules ought to be, and then enforce them as thoroughly as possible?

Thanks,
Erik

— — —

(This is a continuation of an answer to this question. The first half was posted here.)

It will ruin the game:

There is some concern that adding technology to sports will ruin the game by making it too sterile or too slow. Taking the humanity out of the game could be a concern, but as much as people love discussing disputed calls at the water cooler, they also love talking about great (and terrible) performances, and great (and terrible) decisions on the part of the players and coaches. There will always be something to talk about. As for making the game too slow… uh… it could not possibly slow down the game as much as television time-outs, arguing with refs about calls, or in the case of baseball… adjusting your batting gloves, hat, glove, or cup compulsively over and over and over again.

It’s too expensive:

FIFA, the notoriously frustrating international federation of soccer refuses to add video replay to international competition because it would be too expensive for some of its member nations to implement. This is a curious reason since it seems like knowing ahead of time that you will actually know whether the ball crossed the goal line during the game shouldn’t change any element of tactics or strategy.

What do you mean “right?”

This is the heart of the answer to your question. A rule says, “it’s against the rules to trip an opponent” but does that mean “it’s against the rules to trip an opponent” or “it’s against the rules to trip an opponent if you get caught?” It’s clear from these two sports cliches which way the sports world leans: “it’s not a foul if you don’t get caught” and “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.”

Sports, particularly baseball is all about cheating. The last twenty years have been shaped by steroids and HGH. Before that there were amphetamines called greenies. Before that teams regularly intimidated officials or just plain assaulted them when they didn’t like the calls they were getting. It’s well know that the 1919 World Series was fixed by a few players on the White Sox and there have always been unproven rumors that the 1918 one might have been fixed as well. Cyclists are jam-packed full of drugs. They have been for a long time but “tiny electric motors…?” That’s a new one.

Even if a player is clean when he steps onto the court, he or she is rarely clean by the end of the game. Some of the most memorable plays in sports history have been the beneficiaries of some incorrect or missed calls. In soccer there is the “hand of god” goal, in basketball, Michael Jordan’s famous shot to beat the Utah Jazz is an offensive foul. Watch the video and notice Jordan’s left hand on his defender’s hip… he definitely pushes off.

Jordan is not great in spite of pushing off, he’s great partially because he pushed off and didn’t get caught.

Another way to state the question is — do we really want to have the game called “perfectly?” Here’s an example of this in the non-sports world. We certainly have the technology to identify each car and driver and what road they are on. Why shouldn’t we simply fine people whenever they go over the speed limit? Why waste all the time, money, and talent of our police departments lurking around trying to catch people when we could just automate it? I know we’ve started doing this with running some red lights, but I think that if we tried to automate speeding tickets on a large scale there would be riots and political parties would shape up around the issue… and I’m not sure which would be worse! It’s the same with most sports — a totally policed game is a boring one.

Thanks for the fun question,
Ezra Fischer

Why Aren't the Rules the Rules?

Dear Sports Fan,

Reading about the bad call in the Pittsburgh/Atlanta game last night reminded me of something I’ve always wondered. Whether it’s because the ref is looking the other way (literally or figuratively), or because of just plain human error, the rules in sports are often either not enforced, or not enforced correctly. But in many cases, it seems like people just consider that an integral part of the game! Especially given the increasing ability of technology to settle disputes, why not just come up with what the real rules ought to be, and then enforce them as thoroughly as possible?

Thanks,
Erik


 

Dear Erik,

Great question! In fact, this is such an interesting question that I’m going to break my answer into a couple blog posts.

The bad call that you’re referring to is this one:

It won’t work:

Sports rules are complicated and the action happens very, very quickly. Assuming that there is no way that we’re going to be able to rework the rules to change something as integral as “if the catcher has the ball in his glove and touches the runner before he touches home plate, he’s out” then one has to wonder how technology will help. Setting aside video replay for a second, let’s look for another solution. Okay, so — let’s put a chip in the ball. Then, let’s put some material in the catcher’s glove such that the ball knows when it’s in the glove. Great — now we’re cooking with gas! Now we have to have either more material covering the runner’s uniform… and hands, arms, head, neck, etc. Or, I guess we could just monitor whether the glove is making contact by putting some sort of pressure meeter into the ball or glove. Except that won’t work because that glove could hit the ground, the ump, or the catcher’s own body. I’m not sure any of this will work, so let’s go back and examine video replay.

Video replay is the most common form of technology in sports. Football, basketball, hockey, even baseball (believe it or not) have some form of video replay in their rules. In baseball use of video replay is restricted to basically deciding whether a ball was a home run or whether it never left the ball-park, did leave but was subject to fan interference, or left but was foul (too far off to the side to count.) Other sports have more extensive video replay rules. You may have noticed NFL coaches comically struggling to get a little red flag out of their sock, pants, shirt, etc. and throw it onto the field — they are “challenging” the ref’s judgement and calling for a video replay. Every goal in hockey is reviewed by a team of video officials in Toronto. The NBA has been able to replay shots at the end of quarters and games and just recently added video replay for unclear out-of-bounds calls.

Tennis has a system called Hawkeye. This is probably as close as it gets to your suggestion. According to Wikipedia, “all Hawk-Eye systems are based on the principles of triangulation using the visual images and timing data provided by at least four high-speed video cameras located at different locations and angles around the area of play.” In tennis the rules are objective and there is technology which insures the calls are too. Or at least can be. The computer has not totally replaced the line-judges or the referee yet… although I could see a time in the not so distant future where they could.

Most other sports are not as tidy as tennis though. Take the call at home plate that started this discussion: here’s how Jonah Keri described it on Grantland.com

If you want to use replay to make a simple yes or no call, you won’t get unanimity. And no, the fact that Lugo acted as if he were out does not constitute iron-clad proof.

Watch the replay for yourself, with the sound off.

Here’s what I did see: Lugo starts his slide well in front of the plate. Home plate umpire Jerry Meals starts to make his safe sign just as Lugo touches home with his right foot. There’s no way Meals has time to process the play and rule that Lugo had already touched home. He’s also not looking at Lugo’s foot, but rather at the swipe tag. (It should be noted that Lugo did in fact touch home with his right foot the first time — the follow-up tap of home with his left foot was unnecessary.)

Either way, replay wouldn’t have resolved the issue. Not to the point where all parties, including a purple Clint Hurdle, would have been satisfied.

And, as Keri also points out, at the time of this call, the ump had been on the field working in a high-pressure environment for six hours and 39 minutes. Furthermore — even Baseball is a nice tidy game compared to Hockey or Football. No matter how many cameras, sensors, and computers you have, there is no chance in hell you’ll be able to figure out what happened at the bottom of a pile with thousands of pounds of angry football player fighting over the ball.

More tomorrow…
Ezra Fischer