Since I’m on vacation, I’m giving Adrian a little more rope than usual. Here’s his girlfriend’s Unified Theory of Sports:
My girlfriend has a theory about sports. She thinks that all sports that have a physical goal, be it a net or an end zone, require some sort of physical handicap in order to be interesting. These handicaps can be divided along two dimensions — one we’ll call rules-based and the other opposition-based. Rules-based handicaps are things like “no hands” or “no running with the ball/Frisbee” or “the net is two basketballs wide,” while opposition-based handicaps refer to what your opponent is allowed to do to prevent you from reaching your goal. These two types of handicaps move in inverse relation to one another. A sport with many rules-based handicaps — think about basketball with its small net and prohibition against running with the ball or soccer with its single, significant “no hands” rule — has to minimize physicality. Imagine full contact soccer. It would be stultifying. Similarly, imagine if rugby used a tiny goal or minimized running with the ball. Again, nearly unwatchable. Even the NFL, in order to make itself watchable and retain its physicality, had to loosen its handicaps and allow the restricted forward pass that we see today.
Some sports struggle with this relationship. For example, the NHL has fairly significant rules-based handicaps (a strange surface, a small scoring object that you must move with a tool, relatively small nets) but high physicality. While tackling or blocking would make hockey impossibly boring, even checking proves to be a problem for an exciting, offensive game. The tension between trying to retain its current level of violence while still showcasing the skill of its players is the defining problem of modern NHL hockey. International hockey, due to its wider rinks, seems to strike a better balance.
While this model may help us think about the sports we play, it is also kind of boring. More interesting is to look at some weird, obscure sports that take these principles to the extreme. Finding examples of high rules-based handicaps with a high level of opposition are difficult to find — imagine the impossibility of, say, basketball with a footbag with actual defense. One example is the famous Eton Wall Game which has few restrictions on opposition-based handicaps but also has many rules-based handicaps. In the game, a ball must be moved along a wall into the opposition’s goal without actually handling the ball. Even the easiest score, called a “shy” requires one player lifting the ball against the wall with his foot and another touching it with his hand and saying “got it.” Goals are scored about once a decade. The game’s appeal has so far been limited to rich, idle, British public school children.
Even more interesting (and deeply troubling) is the bizarre Florentine sport of Calcio Fiorentino. Instead of using rules-based handicaps, the only obstacles to scoring are opposition-based handicaps. Thus, the game has only two rules of note: no sucker punches and no kicks to the head. The result is a Romanesque carnival of violence, looking like something out of Dante’s Inferno. To say that a match watches like a bar room brawl does a disservice to the civility of bar room brawls. Take a look.
Up until now I’ve defined the opposition-based handicap as being essentially how violent a game is. Whether checking, blocking, tackling, or even punching and kicking, are allowed. This being the 21st century, some entrepreneurial, and perhaps sociopathic, young men have found a new type of opposition-based handicap. A brand new sport allows players to run with, kick, and throw an oversized ball in order to score goals. Mere checking would be an insufficient opposition-based handicap to make such a game interesting. The solution? Tazers. Yes, the sport of Ultimate Tazer Ball allows players to taze the ball carrier. Will minimal rules and maximal voltage be a workable solution to the rules-based vs. opposition-based handicap conundrum? Sadly, I wouldn’t be shocked if it was.