The Biggest Rule Problems in the Three Major Pro Sports

Is it a catch or isn't it? The NFL isn't even sure.
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Is it a catch or isn't it? The NFL isn't even sure.
Major League Baseball is proposing rule changes this year to help speed up the pace of play during games. As my colleague Sean Pendergast reported, Astros pitchers don't sound too thrilled with the idea. In fact, there are plenty of players around Major League Baseball who find the proposed attempt to speed up balls and strikes as pretty ridiculous.

Of course, there are rules in every sport that invite criticism and often do nothing but illicit anger from players and coaches as well as confusion from everyone watching. As rules committees tweak playing standards every year, it only gets more complicated.

NFL - The Catch Rule

After the infamous "tuck rule" was unearthed to save Tom Brady and the Patriots in 2002, there was much debate around the NFL about what was or wasn't a pass. Fortunately, they seemed to figure that out thanks mostly to instant replay. What is exactly a catch, however, remains a mystery. Do a search for "what a catch in the NFL" on Google and you'll find plenty of complaints and discussions on the subject. It should be a relatively simple problem to solve, but instant replay has only exacerbated it.

Before instant replay, it was nearly impossible to see a slight bobble of a ball in the hands of a receiver. And most never thought much of it if he didn't maintain 100 percent control all the way to the ground, never mind if he also happened to be crossing the plane of the goal line. But, by slowing things down in HD, every micron of movement is reviewed and dissected. Sports Illustrated did a pretty good job of breaking down a few instances last year and added to it in December after a highly controversial last play in the Steelers-Patriots (natch) playoff game.

As of now, nothing has changed with the NFL higher ups and no one seems to know exactly what constitutes a catch in the sport despite the fact that it is one of the most fundamental plays in football.

NBA - Continuation (aka The Harden Rule)

Every once in a while, a league will catch on to someone they believe is exploiting rules and make changes to address it. In the NBA, some of the notable changes include goal tending (post Wilt Chamberlin) and the five second rule in the post (thanks to Charles Barkley). In the last offseason, they redefined what constitutes a foul during a shot. It became known as the Harden Rule because Rockets guard James Harden would often initiate contact or hook his arm under a defender, then take a shot. He would be rewarded with a foul. No longer.

It seems like a reasonable rule except that it places the judgment for that rule on the referees, a much maligned group that struggles with many of the calls already. It has become a particular bone of contention between players and officials this season with many players and coaches saying they aren't sure what is considered a foul in the act of shooting and what isn't any longer.

In truth, the NBA has needed to add a fourth official to games for probably a decade now. It is nearly impossible for referees to see everything that happens. The sport is much too fast and the players too crafty. Adding a fourth official won't fix things like continuation, but it will get closer to making it right more often.

MLB - The Strike Zone

The new pace of play rules aren't the only things bothering baseball players. In fact, perhaps the most significant issues is the strike zone, something that is supposed to be fixed in place. Since the days when Braves pitchers would consistently throw pitches two inches off the outside part of the plate and get calls, umpires responsible for controlling the zone have been under fire. It remains baffling that something so integral to the game can be changed by whoever is calling it that day.

Twins pitcher Phil Hughes, when asked about the new pace of play rules and if that would help speed up the game, was candid in a recent story, “Robot umpires,” he said. “There wouldn’t be pitch framing. There wouldn’t be discussions with umpires. There wouldn’t be arguments with umpires about balls and strikes. That would be the biggest way to shave off a bunch of time.”

With all the technology available (we can see the zone on TV screens and even tennis has rulings based on digital technology to see if a ball was in or out), there is really no excuse for a variable strike zone in baseball. Robot umpires might be stretching it, but if there are websites that rack strike zone accuracy in real time already. Why not employ it for real games where it actually matters?