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What Does the Law and Sports Have in Common?

If you are a sports fan, you often find that various rulings on the field are actually quite legalistic. For a Boston sports fan this came to mind twice in the last several months. The first was during the World Series. The play that ended Game 3 was controversial and involved the umpire calling obstruction on Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks. No one contended that Middlebrooks intentionally interfered with the runner when he dove to stop an errant throw. Under the rules, intent doesn’t matter. What matters is that the fielder delays the progress of the runner. Major League Baseball Rule 7.06 is the relevant rule and comes with comments to help explain its applicability to certain situations. When I watched the play, I, like many fans, googled the rules and sought to understand its reasoning. It is not very different from what I do as a lawyer.

Later that month, the Patriots-Jets game was decided on a similarly arcane rule. In that game, the Jets field goal kicker was given another opportunity to win the game after his first attempt failed. The referees called illegal pushing, invoking the reference in the rule that “Team B players [in this instance meaning defensive players] cannot push teammates on the line of scrimmage into the offensive formation.” This is a new rule and, while not as involved as the baseball obstruction rule, it caught my eye because, once again I realized that a sport’s rules book– similar to a codification of laws– is never very far from the action.

 Law & Sports

One of the strongest intersections of law and sports was, for me, addressed in a University of Pennsylvania Law Review of 1975. It was entitled, “The Common Law Origins of the Infield Fly Rule”. Believe it or not, the unnamed author examined changes that were made to the rule in the 1890s. “Baseball’s society… required that the moral principle of fair play be codified so that those who did not subscribe to the principle would nonetheless be required to abide by it.” This all sounds very much like the rules of an ordered society which, presumably, is the intent of our legal system.

Rules and strategy are not foreign to practicing lawyers any more than they are foreign to the sports arena or many other endeavors. It intrigues me that some very important games have been decided by oddities in the rules, but rules nonetheless. Checking the Major League Baseball rules or the National Football League rules is therefore like reading legislative statutes or appellate cases. This can be somewhat frustrating, if not downright disturbing when your team loses, but getting into the “whys” of what happened is not foreign to those whose job requires some legal knowledge.  

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