Change Is Good: The Rule Changes Each Sport Needs
Two things are true about America. We love sports. We hate change.
America is the only nation in the world that is home to four different multi-billion-dollar sporting leagues. The NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB are all made unique by the rules and regulations that mold their sports into the dramas we all gobble up. But each sport could use some shakeups, some tweaking that the leagues are just too chickenshit to actually implement.
Occasionally, there have been some timid steps in the right direction. The NHL has been tinkering with their rules since the lockout in 2004, to varying degrees of success. The MLB created a pitch clock and will likely create a universal DH [UPDATE: This is now official]. The NFL likes to try new things out in their pre-season games and sometimes they end up translating to the regular season, one example being longer extra-point kicks.
I don’t think the changes mentioned above go far enough. Sports leagues can actually learn a thing or two from one another and be a bit braver in evolving their sports. With that being said, let’s take a look at some radical rule changes I’d love to see in the American big leagues.
NBA: Live-Play Substitutions
Fifteen years ago, it seemed like this league was a dud. The games were boring, the talent in the NBA was diluted, and the league was smothered by an abundance of fouls. Oh, and there was an NBA official fixing games. Everyone’s somehow forgotten about that. The NBA’s stock has risen significantly in recent years, thanks in part to strategy changes heralded by the Golden State Warriors and LeBron being, you know… a wizard. More than a few people might argue that the high amount of three's in today's game might be an overcorrection, but for the most part, teams are now playing an exciting brand of basketball. I think we can take it a step farther. The NBA should take a note from their arena brethren and implement line changes during live play, as hockey does.
In the NBA, play must come to a stop for a team to change personnel. If you’ve ever watched an NBA game, you know that play stops a lot. It stops too much. Way too much. Allowing teams to make personnel changes on the fly would cut down on the number of pauses in a game and the length of their duration. Basketball is at its best when played with fluidity. Allowing players to enter the game as soon as they reach the scorer’s table would enhance that fluidity. Worried about cherry-picking? Don’t be. A player will only be allowed to enter play once they “tag in” with the teammate they replace at the scorer’s table. There will be no "too many men on the court" issues.
Fewer Timeouts. Under my watch, teams get six timeouts for the entire game. The timeouts won’t be split by halves either, so feel free to save them all for the end of the game. There will still be enough breaks for stars to stay energized with normal tv timeouts in effect, but this will shave several minutes off the runtimes of games. Good luck getting the NBA to part with the possible ad revenue generated by all these timeouts, however.
NHL: Make the Net Bigger
There are about 1,000 things I’d like to change that could make the NHL the greatest North American sports league, but I’ll write that list another day. For now, let’s get to the biggest issue the NHL faces. The league has somehow made hockey boring. The fastest game in the world, a game where athletes match thoroughbred speeds on foot-knives and blast vulcanized rubber at one another is somehow boring to the majority of sports fans. That is unacceptable. The NHL has more elite young talent than it has had in the past 25 years, and yet, 3-1 final scores abound. This entirely revolves around the drop in scoring the league saw in the 90s and never recovered from. So instead of widening the ice or banning the neutral zone trap, I suggest a more straightforward approach. Just make the net bigger.
The average height of an NHL netminder is 6’2″. The goal is four feet high. Ben Bishop is the tallest goalie in the game, towering at 6’7″ and there are more than 40 goalies between him and the average. Each and every one of them is a mix of a basketball player’s height and reach with gymnast-like flexibility. Take a look at big ole Ben in that picture. That's insane. He's just too damn big. The current cage is no longer a match for these behemoths.
I vote to expand the net by a foot in height and in length. The hockey purists just lit themselves on fire. Let's pause a moment for the firefighters reading this to get back from extinguishing them.
NHL goal numbers have plummeted since the 1990s when the average goalie height was just 5’11". The league tried to solve the problem with tighter goalie jerseys and smaller pads, but you can only shave off so much padding before getting hit with a vulcanized rubber disk moving at 100 mph becomes dangerous. With bigger nets will come more goals, which will bring in more casual fans and excite the diehards who will eventually get over this change ruining their sacred game. What are you going to do, Canada? Not watch hockey? Seeing a game in person would be incredible, and not just because of the scoring. Blocked shots and flashy saves would have extra oomph in front of a cavernous net. Will netminder's stats suffer? Yes, but that is the price you have to pay to make the game fun again. We already have giants putting up inflated stats, as compared to goalies of the past. Every other sport is looking for ways to improve offensive production. It’s time to get on board, hockey fans.
No Fighting – EVER. Those hockey fans that just lit themselves on fire? They just went nuclear. My apologies, Don Cherry, but the sport of hockey doesn’t need fighting. It just doesn’t. The NHL should police the game, not the players. I think part of the reason the NHL does such a poor job enforcing law and order through the front office is that having the players do it gives them a bit of protection when they (often) blow a decision. In my league, if you drop your gloves, you get an automatic 5 game suspension. If you do it again, it doubles, and so on before resetting after the season. Without the fear or “need” for retribution from slights both real and imagined, hockey will finally have the space needed to hit an offensive gear not seen since the era of Gretzky. Come at me, you traditionalist bums. I'm trying to make your sport better.
NFL: (Kind Of) Adopt College Football’s Overtime
The NFL has plenty of off-field problems to figure out before we even get on the turf. I’ll leave those alone because we all know they’ll never get fixed before the sport eventually dies. But before it does die, there is one thing I’d love to see change as soon as possible. Overhaul the overtime.
First of all, ties are the worst. No real American can be for ending any game without a winner (I’m looking at you, MLS) so the most American of sports sure as hell shouldn’t even leave the opportunity for a tie to occur, however unlikely it is. Secondly, The NFL’s revamped overtime rules still aren’t very fair to teams who don’t win a literal coin flip. This would be an easy fix for the NFL if they could stop tripping over their gold-leaf pillow forts and actually improve the game.
I propose adopting the NCAA overtime rules, with minor tweaks. If you’re not familiar, the NCAA uses an inning system that allows both teams to take possession of the ball. If the first team scores, the second team gets a shot to tie the game, sending it into another “inning” or to win. This works wonderfully in the college game. The best team usually ends up winning. Instead of starting 25 yards from the endzone, as the NCAA does, I would make NFL teams start at the 50. From that distance, a team needs at least a first down in order to have a realistic chance at a field goal. And if a team does score a touchdown, there will be no extra points. You must go for two. Imagine on a snowy field in January, a two-point-conversion or a 55-yard field goal needed to keep the season alive. You want some myth-making? There it is.
On the flip side of that coin, my Falcons still would have lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl LI, but they would have at least had a chance to further embarrass themselves under this system, which is only fair.
Pour one out for the XFL, [UPDATE: THE ROCK IS OUR SAVIOR] who gave the world two great things in its short rebirth: That giant beer snake and the XFL kickoff. The NFL should photocopy that kickoff and say that Goodell found the plans within a burning bush. It's what Vince McMahon would do.
MLB: Robot Umpires
That’s right, baseball. Bow to your robot overlords. For too long, baseball has been at the mercy of umpires who, how do I put this gently, fucking suck. Obvious balls are too often called strikes. Home teams too often get preferred (though mostly subconscious) treatment because of the home fans. Enough. Balls and strikes will now be called by an uncaring, unfeeling computer program working with a series of cameras and a real, tangible strike zone. If we can create one on television, then we can make it work in a game.
Just like our current awful home plate umpires, this system will still make mistakes. Way fewer mistakes. When the rare occasion arises, each team gets a single pitch challenge. If a manager feels slighted by the system, a human will review the tape and either agree with the system or change the call. This can happen at any time during an at-bat. If the first pitch of an at-bat was really a ball, the manager can ask for the review later in the at-bat, allowing for the flow of the game to not be paused. This would have the extra dramatic effect of sometimes turning full-counts into walks or strikeouts, depending on the call.
The human reviewing the pitch will be— and get ready for this twist, the home plate umpire. We will still have a person standing behind the plate, maybe not right behind the action, but close enough to call plays at the plate, foul tips, and have dust kicked on their shoes by irate managers. They just won’t be ruining balls and strikes anymore.
When I was a kid, my friends liked to incorporate dodgeball into our baseball. On the playground, a base runner would be out if the ball hit them, either by mistake or on purpose. If we are going to continue to allow pitchers to attempt manslaughter by putting a fastball under the chin of a batter, then why not one up the ante? How badass would it be for a third baseman to peg the batter on his way to the plate to end an inning? Or a bomb from center field that one-hops into an advancing runner? Boston fans are already practicing this. Have ice on the ready, clubhouse attendants.