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 is More Scary — a Panther or a Tiger?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is more scary —  a panther or a tiger?

Thanks,
Raule


 

Dear Raule,

Technically there doesn’t seem to be a single animal called a panther. Panthera is a genus[1] of cats which includes lions, leopards, jaguars, and tigers. In North America we also use the word panther to refer to the couger or mountain lion so I am going to assume that’s what you mean by panther. The panther is the second largest cat in North America (after the Jaguar, the South American form of Panthera) but it is more genetically akin to house cats than to lions. This shows in the sounds it makes. It cannot roar, but instead “hisses, growls, and purrs, as well as chirps and whistles.” It does not frequently attack humans although when it does it can be a serious problem. Full grown males can be up to 8 feet long and 220 pounds. By comparison, the largest tigers can be up to 11 feet long and weigh in at 660 pounds! They are the solitary animals and unusual for cats, they are strong swimmers that enjoy the water. According to wikipedia, “Although humans are not regular prey for tigers, they have killed more people than any other cat, particularly in areas where population growth, logging, and farming have put pressure on tiger habitats. Most man-eating tigers are old and missing teeth, acquiring a taste for humans because of their inability to capture preferred prey.” This really makes me feel good about our species…

Now in terms of sport, I can only assume that you are referring to the Carolina Panthers (NFL) and the Detroit Tigers (MLB.) The Detroit Tigers are having a pretty good season, having won 47 and lost 42 games so far. If the season ended today they would be half a game[2] out of a playoff spot. The Carolina Panthers on the other hand are spending the summer locked out by their owner. Last season they were by far the worst team in the league, only able to win 2 games out of 16.

A fun game to play is trying to categorize all of the team names in a sport. Take the NFL. You may think there are a lot of cat names, and there are: Bengals, Jaguars, Panthers, and Lions — but there are more birds: Cardinals, Seahawks, Falcons, Ravens, and Eagles. The largest category that I can come up with is wild west: 49ers, Redskins, Cowboys, Broncos, Chiefs, Colts, and Bills. Another category I enjoy is the mythical creature: Titans, Giants, Saints… How about industry? This category has a few teams: Steelers, Packers, 49ers (again,) Cowboys (again,) Raiders, and Jets (maybe.) Fun for the whole family!

Thanks for the[3] question,
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Remember “King Phillip Came Over For Great Sex” — Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.
  2. A game behind in wins, but having played one fewer game than the team they are behind.
  3.  Admittedly weird

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!

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.

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.