Ten Things You Didn’t Know about Sports

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All images courtesy of Unsplash, thanks to (a) Vidar Nordli-Mathisen (soccer), (b) Brian Matangelo (swimming), (c) Chris Chow (baseball), and (d) Logan WEaver (basketball)

Why do team sports have an odd number of players? Is bowling a sport? Why do referees exist? Whether you’re an avid sports fan or a sports hater, you should know the answers to such questions. Here they are. That’s right. Here are ten hidden rules of team sports.

1. This is the big one. Have teams of players try to put an object — usually a round one — some place the other team tries to prevent the object from being put. This is the cardinal rule of sports. It trumps all other rules. Both the place where the opposing team doesn’t want an object to go (noun) and the process of putting the roundish object in this place (verb) are usually known as a goal. Examples are “field goal” and “goal posts.” However, in sports where scoring rarely happens (e.g., soccer, hockey), it is also appropriate to use this location word as an adjective expressing extreme happiness and surprise. An example is “Goal!” stated with the same level of surprise and enthusiasm that would accompany the statement “OMG, it is snowing money!”

Incidentally, the most interesting sports usually name the sport itself directly after the object that teams are trying to put some place. Examples are baseball, football, and basketball. The less interesting sports usually do not follow this rule, probably because things like “puck” or “shuttlecock” sound more like sexual activities than sports. “Handball” is an arguable exception.

Speaking of sex, readers will notice that “goal” is a four-letter word, and like other four-letter words, “goal” may be used as a noun, a verb, or an adjective. Examples are (1) “Are you f*cking with me?” (verb) , (2) “Everyone could use a good f*ck now and then.” (noun), and (3) “F*ck! I can’t believe I dropped my car keys into a pile of dogshit!” Incidentally, the word “score” can be used as a substitute for the word “goal” (or the word “f*ck” for that matter), and thus it can also be a verb or a noun. Examples are “Q: What’s the score? A: It’s 84–82. They just scored.” The word score is only rarely used as an adjective, however, because — unlike a goal — it happens too often to be highly noteworthy.

2. Team sports require exactly two teams (no more, no less) consisting of an odd number of players. Five, seven, nine, and eleven players are common choices. In rare cases, when playing sports informally, one may deviate from this rule. But in no case shall a true team sport (hereafter “real sport”) be officially played with an even number of players. OK, volleyball is the exception that proves the rule.

3. Segregate players by age and sex. Girls and women shall play against other girls and women, just as 10-year-old boys shall play against other ten-year-old boys. In rich countries, create leagues for old people as well as for very young people.

4. Do something, it doesn’t matter much exactly what, to make the object difficult to put in whatever place the other team is trying to prevent you from putting it. In this way, players are not only fighting each other but fighting the basic laws of physics and common sense.

For example, don’t just give the small, round object to Thor or the Hulk and ask him to walk it over to the place where the other team doesn’t want the object to be. Instead make people bounce the roundish object against the floor with just one hand while they run. Or make the roundish object small and have someone throw the object in the vicinity of opposing players (but not right at them) really, really fast. On top of that, require those at whom the object is being thrown to hit the roundish object with a strong, slender stick.

To make this more difficult still, make those who hit the ball with a stick put the ball in a spot where no one on the opposing team can catch it — using a large leather catching device. And make the hitter (aka batter) hit the ball in a certain direction and run safely to something called a base. It’s more complicated than that, but you get the idea. Finally, in sports in which you make it that damn hard to put the object where the other team doesn’t want it to be, at least make the place where people try to put the object very, very large. It’s even OK if part of the place where hitters try to put the ball is where fans may be seated.

In what is possibly the most extreme example imaginable of making scoring difficult, make the object to be scored even smaller than a baseball, flatten it and give it sharp edges. Furthermore, make people move the small round object around with crooked sticks. And play this sport on frozen water. Further, make people wear ice skates rather than spiked shoes — so players have to be able to ice skate to play the sport. Make the goalie wear ice skates, too, even though he or she practically never has to go anyplace. Because no one will ever score in this sport, expect players to become extremely frustrated. In recognition of this frustration, allow players to fist fight or slam each other into walls with limited penalties for so doing.

Because this kind of sport is pretty boring, offer it in the winter, when it is easier to freeze water and when people do not have much else to do.

5. Just as some people really like broccoli and sunflower seeds, which are both foods that are really hard to eat, some people like sports in which it is really, really hard to score. Thus, in some sports, there may be a person whose sole job it is to stay very, very close to the goal — maybe even right in front of it. This person’s one job is to try to stop the roundish object from going into the goal. In some sports, this player may even be allowed to break the arbitrary and highly constraining rules that make it hard for all other players to put the object in the goal in the first place. For example, the goalie may be able to use his hands in a sport in which the other players can only use their feet. This is clearly a rule, but it is also a bad idea. It is why, in such sports, people scream “Goal!” the same way they exclaim that it is raining money.

6. Sports must incorporate luck. Otherwise, the better team will always win, and that’s just not very interesting. Again, imagine Thor carrying a small, round object to a certain location. In sports like soccer or hockey — where it is very, very hard to score — luck is already the main method of scoring. But in other sports, it may be necessary to increase the role of luck by limiting the amount of time a team can possess the roundish object without scoring before they are required to hand the object over to the other team. One good way to increase the role of luck — while also making scoring harder — is to create “off-sides” rules that punish fast, skillful players for getting close to their goals before members of the opposing team can do so.

7. Have middle-aged White guys — who wear black and white striped shirts — move around on the court or playing field. Do so under the guise that their job is to make the sport fairer and safer. Give them whistles so they can get people’s attention, the way a traffic cop does. Call these guys referees — except in baseball, where you fittingly dress them in black and give them a name that rhymes with vampire. Be sure that these guys are very, very strongly biased against both teams. Have them interrupt a sport just when things get interesting, say when one team is about to score.

Special note to players: If you are a rookie or bench player, treat these men like gods or expect them to eject you from the game. If you are a superstar, give them the “Are you f*cking kidding me? You call that a foul?!” look whenever they say you broke a rule. This will make it easier for you to get away with the infraction next time — in the manner to which you have become accustomed.

8. Fake sports. Do not be tricked into calling activities sports when they merely resemble real sports. For example, billiards involves a ball, and people do ridiculous things to try to put the ball in a place where it is very, very hard to put it. This seems like a sport. There are balls, a flat green surface, six tiny goals, and a wooden stick. There is even an “opponent.” But notice that there are no teammates. Further, notice that the two people who are “competing” don’t interact. In fact, there are very clear rules forbidding players from doing anything at all to touch, get in the way of, or impede the actions of the other player. That’s not a sport. In sports (see Rule 1), one team actively tries to prevent the other team from putting the object in a certain location. It should be obvious that other fake sports are not real sports for the same reason. Darts and bowling, for example, involve throwing or rolling, but players are expressly forbidden from blocking the throws or rolls of other players. In contrast, roller derby is a sport — whether you like it or not — because players try to knock opposing players on their asses to get ahead of them. They even have five players per team, and referees.

9. Contact sports. Up to this point, I have ignored a second major category of sports. After all, only team sports involve round objects such as balls. A second major category of sports is contact sports such as boxing, wrestling, MMA fighting, sumo wrestling, and fencing. These are, in fact, sports even though they do not involve balls, pucks, or bats. One could even argue that they are Uber sports. They have their basis in activities, such as fighting, that historically preceded modern team sports. In boxing, for example, each participant’s goal is to hit the other person so hard that he or she loses consciousness and falls to the floor. The floor is the goal, of course, but rather than trying to put a physical object there, you try to put your opponent’s entire body there. Likewise, wrestlers try to put the backs of their opponents on the floor. Further, exactly one member per team in contact sports is arguably the epitome of an odd number.

10. “Individual sports.” Admittedly, a gray area in sports is individual sports. Most of these activities do require athletic ability. High jumpers must be able to jump very high, for example. Likewise, runners, swimmers, divers, and weightlifters must make their own bodies do ridiculous things, such as moving quickly through a liquid without drowning. Participants in such activities also compete with others who are trying to do exactly the same unusual things. In some of these activities, there are even goals of a sort — that is, places where you must put something, usually your own body. For example, the goal might be a pole vault bar that one must clear or a finish line one must cross before others do.

These are best considered quasi-sports because competition is involved, because they require skill, strength, endurance, or coordination, and because to a small degree, some of them require people to interact with competitors. In middle distance races, for example, runners can gently jostle others who try to invade their space. Likewise, bicyclists can draft one another to gain advantages in getting where they wish to go. The prefix “quasi-“ means that these athletic activities typically involve very minimal levels of interaction. Allow me to add that track and field relays nudge quasi-sports even closer to true sports because they require coordination with teammates and physical contact (though it is contact with one’s own teammates rather than with opponents).

I feel compelled to note that the individual sports in which White people happen to excel have been artificially expanded in ridiculous and arcane ways. This guarantees that White people have a lot of extra events in which to participate and thus a lot of extra medals to win. Consider swimming versus running. Runners use any specific form of movement they wish to move quickly over the ground. That is, they do whatever it takes to get their bodies to the finish line as quickly as possible. Swimmers, by contrast, have somehow convinced the planet that there are four meaningfully different ways to swim — that is, four nonarbitrary ways to get from one place to another in the water.

There are not. Freestyle swimming is the best and fastest way to swim just as freestyle running is the best and fastest way to run. But by inventing and popularizing four different ways to swim, rich White people have guaranteed that the medal counts of nations such as France, England, Belgium, and the United States are dramatically inflated. Imagine, for example, that four subtly different ways to run became official track and field events. Usain Bolt would have likely struck gold in the cross-arm sprint, the high knee kick sprint, and the freestyle sprint — while some American such as Justin Gatlin might have narrowly edged him out for the gold medal in the knee tapping sprint. Bolt would have an even bigger boat load of gold medals than he already has — even in the complete absence of a long list of relay events.

This is obviously an incomplete analysis of the rules of sports. There are many gray areas I ignored, and many unanswered questions. For example, if one considers billiards or darts a true sport, does this pave the way to making chess, or portrait painting a sport? After all, portrait painters move something (paint) into positions on canvas, and there are even contests in which judges decide who has done this in the most impressive fashion. Likewise, chess arguably involves moving roundish objects on a tiny playing field using arbitrary rules, and there is a goal of sorts. But chess, of course, requires no hand eye coordination, and no physical speed or strength. I will save such difficult question for a future essay. Just as three wheeled electric cars raise questions about the definition of a car, quasi-sports and other competitive activities raise questions about the nature of sport. Nonetheless, as I hope most readers can clearly see, most sports, do follow a few basic rules. Now you know them.

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