Are there Super Bowl rematches every week this NFL season?

Dear Sports Fan,

Is it true there will be a rematch of a prior Super Bowl every week this season?


Dear OmitsWordsByAccident,

Not quite every week, but there are a surprising number of them. In all, there are 19 Super Bowl rematches this season, but not every week has one. The large number of rematches is no coincidence, it’s part of the NFL’s promotional campaign to promote this year’s Super Bowl, the league’s 50th. The exact number of the Super Bowl is always a little confusing. For one thing, the league insists on labeling the game with Roman Numerals instead of numbers. Since most of us were not educated in late 19th century elite prep schools, a number like XLVIII (48) is not intuitively obvious. This year, for the 50th, they are going with the number “50” and not just “L”. For a second level of obfuscation, the Super Bowl for each calendar-year season occurs in the next calendar year. When I was writing a series of posts describing what was special about each NFL team, I was never sure whether to refer to a Super Bowl by the year it was in or the year of the regular season it crowned the champion of. Lastly, the numbering is tricky because it’s hard to remember when the first Super Bowl was.

The NFL is much older than 50 years. It’s first year of competition was in 1920, and by 1930, five of today’s teams: the Chicago Bears, Arizona Cardinals, Green Bay Packers, New York Giants, and Detroit Lions were in existence. The reason why the Super Bowl is not 95 years old instead of 50, is that it began specifically as an end-of-season competition between the NFL and a competing league, the American Football League. The American Football League was founded in 1959 and began play in 1960 in direct competition to the NFL. By 1970, the two leagues had merged. So, if you count back 49 from 2016, you should get one of those years – 1960 or 1970 – right? Nope – you get 1967, a year that hasn’t popped up in conversation yet. Why? The NFL and AFL actually agreed on and announced their merger in 1966, it just took four years for them to merge the operations of the leagues and begin playing as one. The one major element of merging that they decided to act on immediately was the creation of what they called the “AFL-NFL World Championship Game“. It wasn’t until the third such game, in 1969 that the game became known as the Super Bowl.

Celebrating past Super Bowls by inserting rematches into this year’s schedule is a nice idea (although it must have been a tricky scheduling feat). Here, taken directly from the Super Bowl 50 website, with my links, are the games:

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What does "links" mean in golf?

Dear Sports Fan,

What does “links” mean in golf?


Dear Wade,

The term, “links” has two meanings within golf. It is used generally to refer to the course that golf is played on. A golfer might say to a friend of hers, “sorry, I can’t come over and collect kindling with you because I’m going to hit the links today. It also has a more technical meaning, referring to a particular type or style of golf course. If you haven’t ever bothered to dig into the history of the word links, you might find it easy to invent reasons for its general meaning. Viewed from above, a golf course, with its many kidney shaped fairways and greens, can look a little like a string of sausages. Perhaps that’s why it’s described as links? If you’ve never seen it written, you might think that it’s not “links” but “lynx,” the genus of small, predatory, wild cats. Why a cat? Who knows? Half of golf terms seem to be birds, so why not throw a cat in there? In truth, the history of the use of the word “links” in golf can be traced all the way back to the very beginning of the sport.

Although the very first golf-like games may have been played in what is now the Netherlands as early as 1261, golf historians tend to trace a direct line from Scotland in the 1400s to today. Golf must have been a fairly common sport by the mid-1400s and just as addictive as its modern counterpart, because in 1457 it was officially prohibited by the King of Scotland. Early golf enthusiasts faced several difficulties. As we already know, golf was outlawed at times, but even when it was legal, you needed a lot of uninhabited, non-farm land to play it on. The solution that many Scottish golfers found was to create courses near the shore, where the earth was sandy and the water brackish. Useless for farming, this land was ideal for the sport in many ways. The grasses that grew tended “to have short blades with long roots,” which made it hearty enough to survive being hit with clubs and balls, and when nibbled short by livestock, smooth enough for the ball to run on. The hard ground also encouraged the ball to bounce and roll further. The landscape also came with many natural impediments to golf – wind and rain blowing in from the sea, small streams that ran through the land and sandier patches that stopped the grass from growing and the ball from rolling. Instead of resisting these features, golfers embraced the challenge, and indeed, water hazards and sand traps are the two main artificially created obstacles on modern golf courses. The word the Scots used to describe this environment was “links” which comes from the Old English, hlinc, meaning “rising ground” or “ridge.”

Golf is no longer illegal and there are courses spread around the world in every environment imaginable. Although it can be used as a general term, links has retained its meaning as being descriptive of a certain style of golf course set in a particular type of environment. The most obvious visual difference between a non-links and a links course is that a links course will have few or no trees. Unlike a modern course, where the fairways (a safer area to set up a golfer’s next shot, because it has shorter, more even grass) and the rough (the opposite) are easily visually distinguished by color and texture, on links courses they are more difficult to distinguish. The same goes for the course’s greens which, on modern courses are planted with very soft grass to make the ball slow down and roll, but which on links courses may be more similar to the rest of the course. Water and sand are the key obstacles in all styles of golf course, but on links courses, they are either naturally occurring or carefully designed to give that impression. A key difference on links courses is the presence of some very dramatic walls that hold a green back from a sandy bunker.

As a result of the topographical and environmental differences, success on a links course requires different techniques from other courses. Tina Mickelson addresses this on a post she wrote for the PGA website. She identifies three key differences:

  • Because of the wind on links courses, players should drive the ball (the first and usually longest shot on any given hole) with a lower trajectory than on other courses.
  • Since the texture of the grass doesn’t vary as much between fairway and green, players should let the ball bounce up and onto the green as opposed to trying to loft it into the air and have it stick on the green.
  • The sand bunkers on links courses tend to be much more treacherous than on other courses. Mickelson recommends practicing very high shots out of sand, to get over the walls, and extreme prudence. It’s better to hit the ball the wrong way but onto the grass than it is to get stuck in the sand for shot after shot.

Golf enjoys tradition as much as any sport and as such, there’s a certain prestige to links courses. The downside of this is that lost of golf courses that don’t really fit the description of a links course call themselves one anyway, for marketing reasons. The benefit of golf’s attraction to its own past is that it gives The British Open, the only major tournament always played on a true links course, the enjoyable and rosy glow of long history and tradition.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How does stealing bases work in baseball?

Dear Sports Fan

How does stealing bases work in baseball? I know that a stolen base is when a player runs from first to second or second to third base without there being a hit but I’m not sure when base runners can steal and what situations they do it in. Can you help?


Dear Andres,

The steal is one of the most exciting plays in baseball. A player on base tries to run to the next base without the assistance of a teammate’s hit. If he gets there before the opposing team can throw the ball to the base and tag him, he’s safe. If not, he’s out. It’s got speed, deception, timing, and coordination — everything you could want in a sport. A successful stolen base can propel a team to victory. An unsuccessful one can break a team’s momentum and destroy its chance of winning. So how does a steal work?

A player on base — that means they got to first, second, or third base through hitting the ball, being hit with the ball, or being walked — can try to run to the next base basically whenever they want. The only time they are not allowed to run is if a timeout has been called. Timeouts are not as obvious in baseball as they are in other sports, probably because they are unlimited, but they usually happen when a batter steps out of the batting box and holds up his hand or when a catcher wants to speak to his pitcher or visa-versa. If you’re at a game or if you have your television volume way, way up, you might be able to hear the ump screaming, “TIME” when someone gestures for a timeout and “PLAY” when the timeout is over. In some recreational baseball or softball leagues, a timeout is called by default whenever the pitcher has the ball. Not so in a professional setting.

The fact that base runners can try to steal virtually whenever they want doesn’t explain much about when players actually attempt to steal. Professional baseball players throw so accurately and strongly that unless a runner caught them completely off-guard, stealing in the normal course of play would be a miserable and ineffective gambit. No, what makes stealing possible is a rule that forces pitchers to throw the ball to home plate once they’ve committed to the motion of throwing in that direction. A pitcher who is guilty of starting to throw to home plate and changing his or her mind in mid-pitch is guilty of what’s called a “balk” and any players already on base get a free trip to the next base. The impact of this rule is that it allows sharp eyed, speedy players on base to watch the pitcher and start running to the next base as soon as the pitcher commits to a pitching motion.

Once a player decides to steal a base, she begins sprinting to the next base. She only has a few seconds to make it there. In that time, the pitcher will pitch the ball over home plate, the catcher will grab it, rise to his feet, and throw to the player covering the base the runner is trying to get to in one motion. The whole thing – running from one base to the next as well as the pitcher and catcher combining to try to throw that player out – takes right around 3.5 seconds. In a Smithsonian Magazine piece, Brad Balukjian describes an analysis of the process that suggested the most important factor in a successful stolen base is the top speed a runner reaches in his attempt.

By far the most common base players try to steal is second base. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Singles are by far the most common hit. Therefore being on first base is more common than being on any other base. From first, the only place to go is second.
  • While there are more lefties in professional baseball than in the general population, there are still more right-handed pitchers than left-handed ones. When a righty sets up to pitch, his back is turned to first base. This gives the base runner an advantage stealing from first to second but a disadvantage going from second to third.
  • As we covered in out article explaining why there are so few triples any more, there simply isn’t that big of a difference between being on second or third. Runners on either base are expected to be able to score on a ball hit out of the infield and not on one that stays in close. Stealing third isn’t often worth the risk. The difference between being on first or second, on the other hand, is a big deal and worth a greater risk.

While the rules about how and when a player can steal a base are fairly simple the rules about when their act is deemed to be an official steal by scorekeepers is much more complex. While it may not seem important (no matter how it happened, what matters to who is going to win is that the player made it from first to second or second to third) baseball players, managers, and true fans give statistical designations like this a lot of importance. Just one example of these distinctions is that a player who makes it safely to a base because the catcher threw the ball wildly in her attempt to catch the runner stealing is credited with a steal while a player who safely gets to the next base because the opposing player who was trying to catch the ball and tag him out messed it up, he is not credited with a steal. 

Aside from stealing second from first and third from second, there are three other forms of stealing that are much more rare. A player on third base can attempt to steal home. This sounds insane, since to catch the player, the defensive team only needs to do half or one third of the stuff they normally have to do to catch a stealing attempt. Instead of the pitcher throwing it to the catcher who throws it to a player covering second or third base, the pitcher just needs to get the ball to the catcher who can stand there and tag the runner out. Only the fastest and most audacious players ever dream of attempting this. Jackie Robinson did it successfully in the 1955 World Series. A double steal is a play where two runners on different bases both try to steal the base ahead of them simultaneously. This can involve players on first and second running to second on third but it can also be used to disguise an attempt to steal home. The last form of rare stolen base is not allowed any more. In the early days of baseball, when entertainment and high-spirited hijinks were as important drivers of behavior as winning, base runners would sometimes steal backwards. This behavior is now prohibited by MLB rules and somewhat sassily too: if a player “runs the bases in reverse order for the purpose of confusing the defense or making a travesty of the game. The umpire shall immediately call “Time” and declare the runner out.”

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

Why is the MLB baseball season so long?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why is the MLB baseball season so long? Baseball teams play like every day for more than six months. That’s SO MUCH BASEBALL! What’s the point?


Dear Ken,

The Major League Baseball regular season is 162 games. That’s almost twice as long as the NHL ice hockey and NBA basketball schedules. It’s 10 times longer than the 16 game NFL football schedule. It’s harder to compare baseball to soccer leagues whose seasons vary in length from around 30 games to 40 games but whose teams simultaneously compete in a number of other domestic and international competitions and whose players may be called up to play internationally as well. Still, it’s pretty safe to say that baseball seasons involve the most games of any common professional sport.

Baseball has had long seasons for as long as it has been played professionally. In 1876, the first year that professional leagues started mandating the number of games each team should play (before that, they simply gave a minimum but teams could play more games if they wanted) each team played 70 games. By 1901, the first year that the National League and American League both played, the schedule had doubled to 140 games. From there, the number vacillated a bit before moving to 154 in 1920 and then the current 162 in 1961-62. The primary cause for each lengthening of the schedule was team expansion. Up to 1962, the number of games was set by taking the number of possible opponents and multiplying by some number so that each team would play each opposing team 18 or 20 times. Since then, the leagues have sought to retain the same number of games (162) regardless of the number of teams and have done so by changing who teams play and how many times they face each other.

The simplest reason for why baseball seasons are longer than other sports is because they can be. Baseball is not a particularly physically demanding sport. Basketball and hockey’s 82 game seasons engender far more angst about the physical wear and tear on players than baseball’s season which is twice as long. The fact that the most commonly used performance enhancing drug in baseball history has not been steroids, but amphetamines called “greenies” supports the idea that the grind of a long baseball season is more mental than physical. Baseball is mostly a non-contact sport, so its teams can play 162 games in six months and even sometimes twice a day without losing an insupportable percentage of their roster to injury. Bonus fact — I read somewhere that early baseball was more beloved by lower and middle class people and early football by the upper classes because only upper class people had the luxury to risk injury in their recreational activities. Lower and middle class people who worked in more physical occupations couldn’t risk it, so they played baseball.

The other reason for baseball’s long season is that more than any other sport, baseball believes in large sample sizes to determine the best team. At its simplest, baseball is a series of one on one encounters between a pitcher and a hitter. Each game has around 60 to 70 of these contests. The long season provides a greater significance to the statistics produced by each player and each team and baseball is all about statistics! No sport cares more about its records – who is leading in each meaningful statistical category each year and in history. Of course, this is a bit of a chicken or the egg argument. It’s possible that baseball’s reverence for statistics comes from its long seasons and not the other way around.

Baseball’s long schedule gives following the sport a decidedly different feel from being a fan of any other sport. A favorite baseball team is like a friend you can rely on. They’re there almost every night. Baseball fans don’t need to schedule time to spend with their team, they can just use baseball to fill up any down time in their social schedule. Baseball remains one of the few sports that people still listen to on the radio, not just because its action is simple and slow enough to easily imagine but also because the number of games in a season mean that no single game demands full and undivided attention. Going to see a baseball game in person is far easier and more affordable because there are so many games. In so many ways, baseball’s plentiful schedule has molded it into the pastime that so many people enjoy.

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer


Why aren't there more triples in baseball?

Dear Sports Fan,

Here’s something I’ve been wondering – why aren’t there more triples in baseball? I see a lot of doubles and there are always a few home runs, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a triple! What’s up with that?


Dear Mona,

Triples are the rarest type of hit in Major League Baseball by a long shot. Over this season and last, only roughly 2% of all hits have been triples. This wasn’t always the case. Until 1930, there were more triples in baseball than home runs. There are two main reasons for the rarity of triples in today’s game: they are difficult to achieve and not worth that much. We’ll take a quick trip into history to see what changed to make triples so unusual and then fast forward 80 years into today’s baseball to describe why they continue to be infrequent.

When baseball was in its infancy, from the 1860s to the 1910s, most baseball fields had no walls. Baseball was played on a hypothetically infinite field. No matter how far a batter hit the ball, a fielder could theoretically run, pick it up, and throw the ball to a teammate in the infield. As you might imagine with this setup, the frequency of types of hit was in a natural kind of order. Singles were more common than doubles, which were more common than triples, which were more common than home runs. Every home run was what we now call an “in the park home run” because there were no walls beyond which, if a ball was hit, it would be an “out of the park home run.” Even after ballparks were built with walls, so that a ball hit beyond the wall was a home run, triples continued to be more common than home runs. The walls were set so far out (and the balls were so difficult to hit far) that they didn’t really effect how the game was played. According to the SABR Research Journal from 1901 to 1929 “the average distribution was: 76.9 percent for singles, 15.2 percent for doubles, 5.3 percent for triples, and 2.7 percent for homers.” During the 1920s, baseball team owners gradually moved the walls or fences in, to make outside the park home runs more common and also adjusted the way baseballs were produced to make them fly farther. As you can see in this line graph from High Heat Stakes, the frequency of home runs passed that of triples around 1930 and has never looked back.

In today’s game, triples are the rarest type of hit by a wide margin. In 2014, 68% of hits were singles, 20% were doubles, 2% of hits were triples, and 10% were home runs. The most obvious reason for the scarcity of triples is that they are hard to do! Baseball fields may look enormous, but the athletes on them are quite fast and they cover a lot of ground. Almost no matter where the ball is hit, one of the nine fielders should be able to reach it and throw the ball to the infield before the batter can run the 270 feet from home base to first base, around to second and then to third base. The only two plausible reasons for a triple today are some kind of mishap — a funny bounce, a tripping outfielder, an animal running onto the field — or the ball being hit to an area of the field that the defense purposefully left uncovered because they didn’t think the batter would hit the ball there.

Despite how difficult they are, teams could probably get a few more triples than they do if they were really trying for them. On any hit that’s not obviously going to lead the runner safely to third base, teams tend to be conservative and ask the runner to stop at second. It’s rare for someone to try to “stretch” a solid double into a risky triple. The reason for this is that having a runner on third base is not thought of as a big advantage over having a runner on second base. It’s commonly understood that a runner on second base will be able to run home and score on any hit that gets past the infielders. This is almost exactly the same for a runner on third base. Without any real incentive to get to third base, players would rather stop at second than run to third and risk getting thrown out.

How rare is a triple? Around 2% or one in fifty hits are triples. Teams average around eight and a half hits per game. Multiply that by two because there are two teams playing in each game and you get 17 hits per game. 17 times three is 51, which is close enough for me to 50. So, we’d expect to see a triple about once every three games or so. Rare, but not unheard of!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Why do some numbers in soccer refer to positions? What do they mean?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why do some numbers in soccer refer to positions? What do they mean?


Dear Susan,

Numbers are often used in soccer to refer to a player’s position. The use of a number system to refer to positions is not unusual in sports. In American football, the NFL regulates jersey numbers so that each position has a set of numbers only its players are eligible to wear. It’s typical in basketball to refer to a player’s position by number but at least there, there are only five positions to keep track of and a player’s jersey number virtually never matches his position as it sometimes does in soccer. The use of numbers in soccer is legitimately confusing for a few reasons. First, there are 11 players on the field for each team and remembering 11 positions by number is difficult. Second, there was once an assumption that a player would wear the number of the position he played but that’s no longer the case. Third, the meaning of the numbers has evolved over time in twisted ways so that they can no longer be said to be intuitive. Luckily, only a few positions are commonly referred to by number and they are quite easy to learn. We’ll run through the history first and then get to the modern meanings.

Having players wear numbers on the back of their jerseys is actually a relatively modern phenomenon. It began in the 1920s in England with the club team Chelsea. Instead of giving their players a choice, the team assigned numbers by position. Of the 11 players on the field, they started with the most defensive player, the goalie, and counted upwards from one to 11, going from right to left when players were on the same line. Unfortunately for modern soccer viewers, the teams of the 1920s played a very different formation from ones that are common today. Chelsea played with two defenders, three midfielders, and a whopping five forwards. Today, teams play in more defensive formations with four defenders and either three midfielders and three forwards or four midfielders and two forwards. As you might imagine, this has magnificently jumbled the numbering. The shift in formation is only one of the evolutionary forces that make soccer numbers difficult to follow. Soon after they began using numbers, Chelsea took a trip to South America, where according to Wikipedia, they were called “Los Numerados” or “the numbered.” The South American host teams picked up the concept of numbering their players from back to front but, since they played with different formations, they used almost entirely different number to position pairings.

For a while, this must have been so confusing to international viewers as to make the numbers virtually useless in decoding the game. Over time though, as formations have continued to evolve and soccer has become an even more globally blended game, with players from all over playing everywhere, the differing number systems have coalesced into something of a consensus. Simultaneously, players became more empowered in terms of choosing their jersey number. Although they were in the past, today’s players are no longer required to wear the number of their position. What we’re left with is the use of some numbers to refer to positions despite the fact that their meanings are almost totally divorced from jersey numbers. Here are a few of the most important numbers to know:

  • 9 — A nine is the central attacker on any team. Whether she uses speed to streak towards the goal and score or strength to receive long passes and hold on to the ball while his teammates move up the field, the nine is the focal point of the offense.
  • 10 — The ten is the best playmaker on the team. The offense flows through her on its way up the field. He is often the best known player, the most well respected player, the highest paid player, and the team captain as well.
  • 6 — A six is a holding or defensive midfielder. Like a nine, a player can be a six in different ways. A six may be a big, strong, tough player who acts as an additional defender, following the opposition’s best midfield player and tackling them hard. A six may also be a playmaker, like a ten, but farther back, helping the team transition from defense to offense.

Those are by far the most common positions you’ll hear called out by number. Here are a few others you could learn if you really want to impress people:

  • 8 — An eight is an all-purpose central midfielder. Without the offensive playmaking talents of a ten or the defensive mindset of a six, the eight does a little bit of everything. An eight is often one of the hardest working players on the field, since they have equal responsibility for offense and defense.
  • 7 and 11 — The seven or eleven are secondary scorers. If a team plays with three attackers, the seven refers to the forward on the right, the nine to the central forward, and the 11 to the attacker on the left. On teams that play with only two attackers, either the seven or the 11 may be an outside midfielder with an attacking mindset.
  • 3 — Time to give the defenders some. Defense is by far the most confusingly numbered area (remember the original Chelsea team only played with two of them) but the three is always used to refer to the strongest central defender. A great central defender is big, tough, and indefatigable.

In putting together these definitions, I leaned heavily on this article by Buzz Carrick in the Dallas Morning News. I highly recommend reading it.

Now that you know the meanings given to these numbers, go out and use them in a soccer context. You’ll get some knowing looks from the soccer fans in your life. And if anyone tries to drop a number we haven’t covered, like four or five, just ask them, “Do you mean a South American four or an European one?” That’ll stop them in their tracks!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Why do hockey sticks break?

Dear Sports Fan,

I’ve got a question here — why do hockey sticks break? It seems like they break all the time and whenever they do its bad for the player whose stick breaks and the team he’s on. Why don’t they just make stronger sticks?


Dear Nathan,

Although hockey sticks don’t actually reproduce, you can think about their design as being under a type of evolutionary pressure. Professional hockey is an extremely competitive landscape, not just among teams, but among players looking to secure spots on one of the 30 NHL teams. Ineffective players will be dropped and replaced quickly. One thing that ensures that a player will be ineffective is a bad stick. Players who want to get and keep a job playing hockey have an interest in getting the best stick possible. Over time, what has generally been accepted as the best way to make a stick has changed.

The first hockey sticks were made of wood. This is traditionally the material we think of when we say the word, “stick” after all. Wood sticks remained standard throughout hockey until the 1970s when companies began experimenting with other materials like fiberglass and aluminum. Aluminum took over as the stick du jour throughout the 1980s. These sticks were made of two pieces, a shaft, and a blade that fit into the shaft. The benefit of the aluminum stick was that it almost never broke — one shaft might last the lifetime of several replaceable blades — and its production cost was much lower than the traditional wood process. The downside was that the sticks didn’t perform quite as well as wood ones. They produced less accurate and weaker passes and shots. The major reason for this is that aluminum is not as flexible as wood, at least not under the type of pressure that a hockey player can generate when shooting or passing. So, beginning in the 1990s, the favored material migrated once more from aluminum to a mixture of materials: graphite, carbon fibre, and titanium, among them. At first, these sticks followed the two-piece design of their aluminum predecessors, but soon their designers realized that they could use the extra malleability of the new materials to create a one-piece stick. The result was the one-piece composite material sticks that are most popular today.

These new hockey sticks have all of the benefit of wood’s flexibility and feel with significantly less weight. It’s also much easier to create batches of identical sticks when you’re creating them in a lab or factory than in a wood-shop out of natural material. Modern sticks are much easier to control. The only downside of these sticks is that they break. As you said, it’s pretty common to see sticks break in an NHL game. And when they do, it can be a big problem for the player and their team. Aside from goalies, it’s illegal for a player to play with a broken stick. This is pretty clearly a safety issue, even more so now with composite sticks than the original wood ones. So, when a player breaks his stick, he has to drop it immediately and his effectiveness on the ice is severely limited until he can get a new stick or get off the ice. I wrote a post a few weeks back about why you’ll sometimes see one player give her stick up to a teammate in this situation. A lot of people claim that the new sticks break more than the original wood sticks. The Wikipedia post on sticks denies this, claiming that wooden sticks actually had slightly shorter lifespans.

In any event, whatever the nature of the stick, the essence of your question is: why not design a stick that won’t break? The answer is that if you made it strong enough to never break, it wouldn’t make a very effective stick. A hockey player relies on her stick to bend, sometimes more than you would imagine it bending, especially when taking a slap shot. Unlike a wrist shot, whose strength is the quickness a player can release it with and its accuracy, a slap shot is a power tool. During the action of a slap shot, the stick bends against the ice and then springs off of it, more like a slingshot or a bow than a baseball bat. The ability to bend and therefore the risk of breaking is essential to a hockey stick’s utility. The best way to understand this is to watch it in slow motion:

Having a stick break in the middle of a game is a pain but it’s not as damaging as not being able to shoot it like that!

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer

Why is it hard to make football safer by changing its rules?

This week, we’ve published three posts about the impact of brain injuries on football. Each post has been setting the stage for tomorrow’s post on how to fix football. The first post set the stage by establishing that brain injuries suffered by football players are severe and can be life-threatening. The second explored how, why, and when brain injuries occur during a football game. What are the factors that contribute to their frequency? In the third post we answered the seemingly rhetorical but important question of why the leaders of football and the National Football League, specifically need to take this issue seriously; that brain injuries threaten the very existence of football as we know it. Today, we’ll take a look at the history of rule changes in football and some of the factors that make finding a rule-based way of preventing brain injuries so difficult.

There are a million ways to change football to reduce or eliminate head injuries. It’s easy! In fact, there are some versions of football that we’ve been playing for years that have very few brain injuries. Why not convert the NFL to a touch football or flag football league? Or we could think outside the box and allow tackling but play on a field made of rubber, filled with water four feet deep. Technology could provide another way forward. Each player could be fitted with sensors and a virtual reality headset and then left in individual padded rooms, each 120 yards by 53 yards big. They could safely play a virtual game of football that was as athletically challenging without any risk of injury.

Of course, I’m not serious about any of these suggestions (although, I would pay a lot of money to see the football-in-a-pool game played). Each would, in its own way, be unacceptable. Brain injuries in football are a problem in part because people love football so much. If a less prized activity was damaging its participants, it would be much easier to change it or write it off completely. Our goal is to find a way to reduce or eliminate football’s brain injuries without stealing football’s essence.

In this mission we should be heartened by one element of football’s history: it’s constantly changing rules. For more than a hundred years, football organizations have changed the rules of football, sometimes quite significantly, to improve the safety of its players. Some of these rule changes are obvious in their intent, like the move in the mid-60s to shift the goalpost from on the goal line to behind the end zone. This was a protective measure to keep players from running full speed into concrete or metal goal posts. Likewise, rules like the 1962 prohibition against grabbing another player’s face mask and the 1980 rule against (I kid you not) clubbing an opponent’s head or neck with your fist, were obvious safety measures.

The problem that we face today is that many of the safety measures introduced since 1906 sought to make football safer by reducing the time players spent literally engaged with each other. The theory seems to have been that players running in space were safer than players grappling and wrestling with each other. As we know from our coverage of how brain injuries happen in football, as sound as this logic sounds, it runs almost totally counter to the truth when it comes to brain injuries. The more space there is for players to run, the faster they go, and the faster they go, the worse the collisions with other players are for their brains. Let’s take a quick trip through the history of football rule changes. Note how each safety measure encourages less close grappling and more running freely around the field.

In 1906 a rules committee was brought together to save football. In the past five years, 45 people had died playing football, 18 in 1905 alone. Political pressure, coming from as far up as President Theodore Roosevelt, was sending a strong message: “Make the game safer or face it being outlawed.” The two biggest changes the committee made were to legalize the forward pass and change the distance required for a first down from five yards to 10 yards. These may not seem like safety measures but before then, without the forward pass and needing only to get five yards to earn a first down, football resembled nothing more than hand-to-hand combat. The play was packed into a small space where kicking, punching, tearing, and gouging could leave players with broken ribs, necks, or skulls. Spreading the game out was meant to prevent these types of injuries.

This idea has continued into modern football. In 1974, a rule was created to limit defenders to touching a wide receiver only once when more than three yards from the line of scrimmage. In 1978, this was extended to five yards. Also that year, offensive linemen were allowed to block with their arms extended instead of having to be body-to-body with the defender they were trying to block. In 1979 the NFL got more particular about how players could block each other, eliminating blocking below the waist on kicking plays. In 1987 offensive linemen were protected from having one player dive at their knees while another engaged them higher up. In 1989 defensive players with a clear path to the quarterback were prohibited from hitting them in the knees. In 1992 defenders got a little protection when offensive blocking below the thigh was made illegal. In 1995 the chop block and lure blocking techniques were prohibited. In 1999 blocking from behind was prohibited. It wasn’t quite a rule change, but in 2004 refs were instructed to begin actually enforcing illegal contact, pass interference, and defensive holding rules. In 2007 the penalty for blocking a wide receiver below the waist was expanded from 5 to 15 yards.

Over more than 100 years, the way that football players engage each other has moved from fighting to grappling to tackling to hitting and now to colliding. Every rule that has limited the times and places that players can make contact with each other has contributed to giving players more time and space. For an athlete, time and space equal speed. Speed makes for an exciting game but it also makes for more explosive collisions when players do meet up.

Even as we acknowledge that historic rule changes, even those put in place for player safety, have made the game more dangerous, it’s hard to imagine undoing them. Sure, it’s better to break an ankle than bruise a brain, but would we really make the dangerous practice of blocking below the thigh legal again? In an era that is so concerned about player safety, changing the rules of football to legalize more brutal but less damaging forms of violence does not seem like a good way forward.

The problem is that continuing to add prohibitive rules to football might not work either. There are two problems with continuing along the path of outlawing more and more different forms of hitting. First, given the freedom and athleticism of offensive players, defenders are reaching a limit. They simply don’t have time to get their bodies into a position to hit someone the right way all the time. The defender is moving at high speed, the running back or wide receiver is moving equally fast. Penalties, fines, and suspensions won’t prevent all the dangerous hits in the game, much less the subconcussive injuries caused by the offensive and defensive lines clashing, or the fluke injuries that result from the game’s chaos. These types of prohibitive safety rules are also unpopular among football players and fans. Central to the popularity of football is a culture of toughness. There’s no sport that is more reliant on its players to sublimate their bodies, thoughts, and desires to the team. No football play works thanks to one player, each play is the product of eleven players moving in lockstep. Even the greatest football player in the most important position is relatively unimportant compared to a great player in another sport. Wide receivers cannot catch passes thrown poorly and quarterbacks cannot throw if they don’t get good blocking. The violence of football is important to its culture because it reinforces the core truth football teaches, that no single person is as important as a team.

If we cannot undo the decades of well-intentioned, safety-first rules that have counterintuitively made football into an even more dangerous sport for its players’ long-term health and we cannot protect them by continuing to prohibit even more forms of violence, then what can we do to save football? Tomorrow I’ll suggest a single, small change that would unilaterally make football safer without changing the essential nature of the game. We can save football.

What happens when a forest grows in a NASCAR track?

The Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsborough, North Carolina, was one of the first race tracks in NASCAR history. A .9 mile long, oval dirt track, it was purchased and expanded by NASCAR pioneer Bill France and was ready for racing during NASCAR’s inaugural season in 1949. The first NASCAR race at the track was won by Bob Flock and drew 17,500 fans. The Occoneechee Speedway continued to be used as a NASCAR track until 1968 when, in part due to complaints from local churches that didn’t like racing on Sundays, it was closed down. There’s a little bit of dramatic irony in this choice because the first Super Bowl had just happened a year before, in 1967. Little did those church-going folk know but Sundays were just starting to be dominated by another sport and getting rid of the raceway was not going to be the most effective move ever.

After a few years, the speedway fell into disrepair and a fast growing forest sprung up in and around the track, covering what used to be wide open fields with beautiful trees. In 2002 the site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A walking trail was created along the path of the track soon after and restoration of the grandstand and some of the track buildings in 2006. There is a local group devoted to the track’s restoration which you can join here and which also runs an annual racers reunion and car show.

I’m visiting friends in North Carolina this week and I had the pleasure of walking a few laps of the track yesterday. It’s a beautiful, peaceful place which makes it hard to imagine dozens of cars powering their way around the track while thousands of people watched and cheered. I took some photos:

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If you’re wondering what it looked like in the old days, check out the video clip of the track at the bottom of this New York Times article about the track by Robert Peele. The footage was taken in 1963 by the Peele’s father!

The Occoneechee Speedway is a great example of how sports weaves itself into the cultural and natural history of the world. It was fun to visit it!

Why is the bunt controversial in baseball?

Bunt 2

Last week we answered a great question about what bunts are in baseball. We decided to split up our answer into two parts: How does a bunt work in baseball? and Why is the bunt controversial in baseball?

Dear Sports Fan,

How does a bunt work in baseball? And why is it so controversial right now?


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Dear Otis,

One of the best things about baseball is how long we’ve been playing it professionally in this country. The first professional league started in the 1870s. Baseball fans love that their sport has such a long professional history in this country and they keep a lot of it alive. Bunting has been alive as a strategy since the very beginning of professional baseball and it’s been controversial for one reason or another for almost the whole time! Let’s take a quick trip back in time to see how bunting and the reasons for its controversy have changed. To help as along our way, I found two wonderful articles about the history of  baseball and bunting that I’m going to lean on heavily. The articles are “Why do baseball players still bunt so damn much” by Erik Malinowski for Bleacher Report and “Baseball’s long and complicated relationship with the bunt” by Randy Leonard for The Atlantic. I recommend reading both!

In the 1870s, baseball was basically an adolescent. It was played by established rules but they weren’t the rules that it would settle into in time. The two rules that we’re concerned with are the shape of the bat and the rule that determined what a foul ball was. Today, of course, bats are rounded and a foul ball is one that either falls outside of the lines that extend from home plate to the outfield or passes first or third base to the outside of the bases. In 1870, these rules were a little different. The shape of a batter’s bat was up to him and critically to the subject of bunting, a flat bat was allowed. The foul rules were different in that a ball would be called fair no matter where it landed as long as it first hit the ground in fair territory. The combination of these two rule differences made bunting a particularly effective strategy. The flat bat made it much easier to do and the fair/foul rule made it much more effective because you had far more territory open to you to direct the ball away from fielders. Bunting was so effective that in the 1870s, a bunting specialist named Ross Barnes led the league in hits and batting average more than a third of the time.

Effective as it may have been, bunters took their share of abuse. According to Leonard, fans in the 1870s “jeered that it was effeminate” and in 1904, then president, “William Howard Taft publicly scorned the bunt.” And there’s more:

In 1873 The Boston Globe called bunting “the black game,” an acknowledgment of one’s “weakness at the bat,” and a few years later the Detroit Free Press called it a “babyish performance.”

There is something that feels, even to this day, underhanded about bunting. You feel instinctively that the batter should be trying to hit the ball hard not let it bounce gently off of their bat. When a bunt doesn’t work, it feels foolish, but when it does work, it makes the defense look foolish in a way that a hard-hit line drive or even a home run does not. The bunt plays against the ultra-masculine image of sports and for that reason it can be controversial. That’s not the main reason why the bunt is controversial today.

The bunt is controversial today because it’s basically been proven to be a bad idea. Baseball has been undergoing a statistical and cultural revolution since the 1980s. Many stats that once were seen as meaningful indications of performance, like RBIs and runs, have proven to be mostly meaningless and have been replaced with better stats. The statistical reality of bunting is that even when it works, the team that does it is intentionally sacrificing an out to advance a runner. The value of doing this is negative. A team with no outs and a man on first base (a normal scenario before a bunt) has a better chance of scoring a run that inning than a team with a runner on second and one out (a normal scenario after a bunt.)

Bunts are back in the news in a big way because the Kansas City Royals have been bunting like crazy. Or, more accurately, they have been bunting like they are a team from the 1980s, as Will Leitch suggests they might be in his enjoyable Sports on Earth article:

Watching them [the Royals] play — the five sacrifice bunts, the seven stolen bases, the lack of homers and strikeouts — has me thinking that this isn’t just the first time the Royals have made the playoffs since 1985: I’m honestly concerned that this team has been beamed here from the year 1985.

And they’ve been winning. The Royals are 4-0 in this year’s playoffs and are only four wins from making it to the World Series. Are they doing this because of or in spite of their bunt-happy retro style? Dave Cameron looked into the four bunts of their wild Wild Card victory for and concluded that of the four, one bunt was a mistake, one was unclear, and two were “probably positive.” Overall, Cameron writes that:

In late game situations where one run is paramount, bunting can often be the correct play, and the don’t-bunt-ever reaction can be just as incorrect as the bunt-always fanaticism.

Looking at the comments under his article, it’s clear that many readers and baseball fans don’t agree. After 140 years of baseball history, the controversy about the bunt may just be getting started.

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer