Unwritten Rules

A while ago, a baseball player coworker and I had a conversation about the unwritten rules of baseball. These are expected sportsmanship behaviors. When players are perceived to violate these moral guidelines, the other team may result in retaliation. Teams can end up in brawls on the field over the escalations started by someone violating an unwritten rule.

Apparently I left the impression that baseball is the only sport with unwritten rules. He sent me the unwritten rules of the gym.

Soccer has them too. In futbol (soccer),

  1. If a player is injured, then the other team should put the ball out of play or give the ball back to the team with the injured player when it restarts.
  2. Players who score against a former team return to the center circle to restart without celebrating.
  3. Offer a hand to help an opponent stand up.

There are unwritten rules everywhere. And we are expected to abide by these social conventions or we are jerks who deserve to be snubbed or attacked for failing to be a decent person. This like…

  1. Let others out of an elevator or train before you get in.
  2. Leave a one urinal buffer zone.
  3. Texting in the presence of company.

The problem I have with unwritten rules is the passive-aggressive escalation and retaliation aspect. Rules exist to set the expectations of behavior. Writing them down ensures everyone knows what are the expectations of behavior. The authorities (referee, police, HR) can punish people for failing to abide by them. Leaving them unwritten just means one party can take advantage and the aggrieved party breaking written rules in retaliation to feel even more upset they got unjustly punished.

2 thoughts on “Unwritten Rules

  1. The interesting thing about unwritten rules is how fuzzy they are. Once you codify them people will often go right to the boundary and may not think about the purpose behind them. In soccer it is considered good sportsmanship to stop play (by playing the ball out of bounds) for an injured player but if the rule is codified then suddenly faking an injury seems like a good way to stop a play. As long as it is fuzzy play can continue especially if a player is known to get hurt a lot and the magic spray fixes them every time. The fuzziness does lead to different behaviors and misunderstandings but also gives a lot of leeway in unforeseen situations.

    • That is a good point. I agree the reason why they do not get codified is partially that it changes incentives for the worse such as increasing the amount of faked injuries in soccer.

      The recent rule that the referee should immediately stop play to assess and deal with a head injury is a foray into codifying this. It seems like players and teams are still ignoring these injuries like Papy Djilobodji playing against Liverpool. Anecdotally it feels like there are more injuries, but I have not found something tracking these numbers. I’d love to see them as a metric on the EPL profiles. (Sadio Mané)

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