Have you ever tried explaining sports rules to someone who isn’t really a sports person? It’s more difficult than it sounds. After all, games like football, hockey, and golf all have a complex system of dos and don’ts. Some of these rules can feel outdated, overly complicated, or just plain silly. But while they’re often annoying, they occasionally make things just a little bit more exciting.
So today, we’re taking a look at the wide world of sports to see how wild things can get. Because whether we’re talking about basketball, baseball, or even polo, every game has some pretty strange standards that athletes have to play by. And trust us, when athletes don’t follow these incredibly odd guidelines, all sorts of crazy stuff can happen on the field. From talking on the green to carrying a cell phone on the court, here are some of the most bizarre rules that professional athletes have to follow.
Golfers have to follow rules about what they can and can’t say
One thing that separates golf from leagues such as the NFL, NBA, and MLB is that it’s, for the most part, a solo sport that features individuals directly competing against each other. With that said, many who play in competitions such as the PGA, LPGA, and PGA Tour Champions are acquaintances and friends with those they attempt to beat during weekend events. They often speak to each other as they walk down a fairway or towards a green.
And they’d better not be talking strategy during such conversations. As noted by the USGA, the rules indicate a player can’t, among other things, offer advice to a competitor during a round, ask for advice, or touch equipment belonging to a different player in an attempt to learn information. According to the Nambour Golf Club located in Australia, penalties for breaking such rules involve a two-stroke foul or the loss of a hole during match play.
No worries if somebody yells out advice to a player, though. Per Golf Digest, unsolicited advice is not directly forbidden "because the player can’t control such an act." Those of you hoping to get a golfer you dislike booted from a PGA event during a round will need to think of something else.
David Ayres introduced fans to the emergency goalie rule
How many sports fans have sat either in the stands or on our couches and dreamed of a coach pointing our way and telling us it was time to go into a game? As unbelievable as it may sound to non-hockey fans, that’s possible in the NHL. As noted by the league’s official website, rosters always carry two goaltenders, the one who’s on the ice during a game and a second who serves as a backup and can enter a contest at any time via a substitution. If, however, both of those goalies are incapacitated, a team can dress a third "emergency" goaltender who, otherwise, isn’t under an official club contract.
This happened in February 2020, as described by CNN, when David Ayres — a Zamboni driver for American Hockey League team the Toronto Marlies — was called into action by the Carolina Hurricanes for a regular-season NHL match-up versus the Toronto Maple Leafs. Ayres helped the Hurricanes notch a 6-3 win over Toronto on February 22.
According to NJ.com, an emergency goalie attends most games, largely as a spectator. In the unlikely event that duty calls, though, he signs a one-game amateur tryout contract with a team and receives the opportunity to play in the largest hockey league in the world, if only for one night.
Polo is for right-handed athletes only
Odds are there’s probably plenty that casual sports fans, present company included, don’t know about polo. Essentially, players ride on horses and attempt to score goals using a mallet to strike the ball. We’re not sure why somebody decided that a sport that’s similar to playing hockey except with athletes riding horses rather than skating on ice was a good idea for anybody, but we digress.
In a sport such as hockey or baseball where a player utilizes a piece of equipment to strike an object in play, he can hold that device how he chooses. Truth be told, there’s a lot of strategy in the use of left-handed batters and hockey players, such as where a coach places them in lineups. While lefties are welcome in polo, they’d better get used to playing with their weaker hands if they want to participate in the sport competitively.
As explained by the Yarra Valley Polo Club, polo players are banned from using their left hands out of safety for everyone involved. Per Spirit of Polo, this rule exists to eliminate the potential danger caused by right-handed and left-handed players approaching a ball from opposite directions.
Switch-pitchers have to play by some bizarre guidelines
Being ambidextrous has advantages in the world of baseball. Switch-hitters, especially those who are equally adept at getting on base from either side of the plate, are invaluable for managers who scheme against pitching staffs. And somebody capable of accurately throwing a baseball with either hand can star at multiple positions, and their gift can potentially even extend a career. That includes pitchers, but only to a point.
Reliever Pat Venditte journeyed around the Major Leagues from 2015 through 2019, and he landed in the Miami Marlins organization in January 2020. He’s unique, compared to most hurlers, in that he’s a "switch-pitcher" who successfully deals using either hand. And in December 2018, NBC Sports Bay Area described how MLB added what’s unofficially known as the "Pat Venditte Rule."
According to this rule, a pitcher can use either throwing arm during a game, but they must inform the home plate umpire either verbally or via a gesture how he’ll pitch during an at-bat. The pitcher is not allowed to switch hands "until the batter is retired, the batter becomes a runner, the inning ends, the batter is substituted for by a pinch-hitter, or the pitcher incurs an injury." If a pitcher switches hands due to injury, he can’t go back to his other arm until at least his next outing.
Golfers must always have the correct scorecard
It’s not uncommon to see a batter, pitcher, or even an umpire lose count of how many ball and strikes there are during a given at-bat. In fact, viewers and even those participating in the game get a chuckle whenever a batter starts strolling toward first base when he believes he’s watched ball four go by, only to then be told that he has to return to the box because he was off by one. Thankfully for all involved, somebody is tasked with keeping track of those numbers and with putting such stats on a scoreboard. No real harm is done if an on-field mathematical error is made.
That’s not the case in golf. As explained by Golfweek, professional golfers must keep accurate accounts of their scores during tournaments. If a golfer turns in a score that is higher than what he or she registered on the course, that value becomes the player’s official mark. A golfer who turns in a lower score or an unsigned scorecard is disqualified, regardless of if the mistake was an accident or not. Eddie Pepperell is just one example of a player who inadvertently made himself ineligible by failing to follow a rule that probably doesn’t need to exist at a time when just about every noteworthy golf tournament is aired on television.
Breaking backboards is a no-no in the NBA
One of the most enjoyable parts of watching a young Shaquille O’Neal dominate at both the college and pro levels involved his assaults of unsuspecting rims and backboards. Shaq sometimes even ripped entire goals — rim, backboard, and all — to the floor with him on two-handed slams. As mentioned by Fox Sports, Shaq’s brute strength and power resulted in the NBA reinforcing backboards and rims (a.k.a. "Shaq-proofing") to prevent such breakages. In the modern era, though, big-time basketball contests rarely, if ever, come to a halt because of a rim-shattering dunk unless something goes awry.
Some fans may not know that players have good reason to release their grip of the rim as soon as a dunk is completed. According to official NBA rules, a player who shatters the backboard or otherwise makes the rim unplayable is immediately handed a technical foul regardless of his intent during his dunk. The player won’t, however, be ejected, since that isn’t considered an unsportsmanlike act. Per the Association, a player who breaks a backboard during pre-game or halftime warm-ups won’t be punished by the referees. The commissioner is, however, allowed to review any incidents in question according to the terms of the collective bargaining agreement.
There are actually rules about using baseball caps
The movie A League of Their Own gifted baseball fans and moviegoers with many humorous moments. "There’s no crying in baseball" is now a mantra repeated by fans virtually every season. Another memorable highlight from the film involves the character Mae, played by pop music and cultural icon Madonna, using her cap to catch a fly ball for an out. However, ESPN poured cold water on this moment when "the Worldwide Leader" spoke with Dorothy Schroeder, who played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. "Stuff like that never went on," Schroeder told ESPN. "We were deadly serious about our game."
Current ballplayers better not get any ideas from the movie. As noted by the official MLB website and Umpire Bible, a player who uses his cap to interfere with a live ball will give the opposing batter a three-base reward. All runners, including those on base, would advance that same amount, meaning it would be a three-run error if the bags were loaded at that point of the game. The ball also remains in play even if it’s caught in the cap of a defensive player, so the batter could attempt to cross home plate until a timeout is called and the play is stopped by an umpire.
Being too big is costly for NFL athletes
It behooves all pro athletes, NFL players included, to remain fully fit and in shape for the majority of any year. Of course, these millionaires grow more relaxed during offseasons. They enjoy the vacations that they earned during grueling campaigns, and they eat and train differently when away from their teams. It’s pretty normal for football stars who play any position — whether it be quarterback, running back, lineman, or kicker — to show up to training camp sessions slightly overweight. While that isn’t an issue during offseason training activities or the first day of camp, it becomes a different matter once preseason exhibition games arrive on the schedule.
As noted by Sports Illustrated, players began the 2019 NFL regular season subject to fines of $695 for every pound their team deemed them overweight. Clubs were able to issue overweight fines on the same player twice per week at that time. Of course, fining players for big bellies isn’t new. According to Business Insider, back in 2013-2014, the Denver Broncos hit former defensive tackle Terrance Knighton with roughly $300,000 in fines related to his weight during his tenure with the club.
It’s worth noting that the NFL Players Association and the league will put pen to paper on a new collective bargaining agreement during the 2020s. Overweight fines could either increase or decrease at that time.
The NFL has strict rules about calling timeout
Every NFL team is given three timeouts per each half of a game. Players and coaches can use those clock stoppages as they wish. Quarterbacks keep them in their back pockets in case they need to step away from the line of scrimmage to prevent a five-yard delay-of-game penalty. And these stoppages come in handy in the final minute of a half or game. Sometimes, a coach will use a timeout as a way to strategize against the opposition. For example, stopping play before the ball is snapped to "ice" a placekicker who’s about to attempt a game-winning field goal gives that kicker a little more time to think about the task at hand.
Using one timeout is fine, but going to that bag of tricks a second consecutive time is a no-no in pro football. According to Section 5, Article 1 of the NFL rulebook, calling back-to-back timeouts during the same dead-ball period is prohibited. A team that tries to call a second timeout in that period will be flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, which is a 15-yard penalty (and an automatic first down if the defending team is the guilty party). If the defensive team commits this foul on an extra-point try, the ball would be moved half the distance to the goal line. So yeah, watch it with those timeouts.
Tennis players must silence their phones
For the most part, sports fans are encouraged to be loud and engaged in the action during an event. At basketball games, arena management will pump noise into a venue and post notices on scoreboards that prompt customers to get on their feet and yell their loudest during a contest. That isn’t the case at a tennis match. While those in the stands can politely applaud following a point, they’re asked to remain silent and in their seats during play. A judge may even use his microphone to ask for quiet if he feels the crowd is too unruly before a serve is delivered.
Tennis players are required to follow similar etiquette rules. According to the United States Tennis Association, a player can stop a match if he hears his opponent’s cell phone ring and then claim the point based on what’s known as "deliberate hindrance." Players are, however, allowed to have a phone present on the court as long as it’s set to vibrate or silent. Why? We’re not sure. Perhaps the ATP or WTA wants to encourage players to take selfies during matches. Regardless, we’re waiting for the moment at Wimbledon where a player requests a water break so that he or she can take an important call.
Baseball has some bizarre fashion standards for their athletes
Professional athletes being able to express themselves as they wish has been a hot topic among fans and observers for decades, and that also goes for what athletes wear. As noted by Rolling Stone, former NBA commissioner David Stern once implemented a strict dress code for players that was called "racist" by some in the Association, as it forbade players from wearing "headgear" or "chains, pendants, or medallions … over the player’s clothes" during events related to the league.
Nowadays, players are able to wear pretty much whatever they wish as they head into arenas. But even in 2020, certain baseball organizations wish to limit what athletes wear on their faces. Per the New York Post, the Chicago White Sox allows players to sport facial hair as long as it’s appropriately trimmed. The New York Yankees began the decade still demanding that their employees be clean-shaven during regular seasons. It’s a pretty annoying rule, and we look forward to the day when somebody such as Bryce Harper is able to rock the look of his choice for the Bronx Bombers.
A fair catch can gift a team a free kick
In pro football, a punt usually ends in one of four ways (a fake kick or penalty excluded). The kick goes out of play, it’s blocked, it’s returned by an opposing player, or it’s retrieved by what’s known as a fair catch. When a fair catch is called, the offensive player who receives the ball gives his team possession at the exact place where the catch is made. This is useful if the receiving team runs a scheme that limits the number of blockers placed at the line of scrimmage or if a kick travels a short distance.
As explained by CBS Sports, a fair catch can offer a unique advantage to a receiving team depending on where that ball is received. NFL rules allow for the offensive team to attempt a free field goal kick on the play immediately after a punt that ends in a fair catch. Unlike on a standard field goal, the defensive team must stay ten yards off the ball on a free kick. If the field goal is converted, the kicking team is awarded three points. A free kick that’s short of the posts can be returned by the opposing team.