Do Sports Evolve?

Every sport has a specific set of rules, and in general, these rules are not supposed to change. Sports and games are considered to be constant. No matter where or when you are playing the game, it is supposed to be the same set of rules. But as society and culture evolve over the years, do the sports we play change with it? In his article in The New Republic, Marc Tracy discusses the recent rule changes in the NFL and explores whether or not they affect the integrity of the sport of football. However, I believe Tracy overlooks that almost all sports have been altered and changed since their creation.

In his article Tracy suggests that if a game changes too much, it is no longer considered the “same” game. He points specifically to three rule changes in the NFL, all of which are designed to increase player safety. But Tracy argues that if we go too far in that direction, we might lose the core foundation of what makes football football. But Tracy writes the article under the assumption that sports are not supposed to change. He recognizes that while these few changes alone may not jeopardize the sport, if changes like this continue, football may lose its core definition.

I would argue that these changes don’t jeopardize the sport, because it is natural for sports to change with time. If we look at any sport that has been around for more than one hundred years, we can see a vast difference between how the sport is played now versus how it was played when it was first created. For example, Major League Baseball has undergone a number of rule changes since its creation in 1869. Throughout its existence, MLB has altered the rules of the game to better suit the interest of the fan base. The period from around 1900 to 1919 was considered the “dead-ball era” in baseball because games were extremely low-scoring. Because the games were so low-scoring, interest in baseball declined because it was considered boring when no one scored. Major League Baseball reacted to this by changing a number of rules to favor hitters and allow for more runs to be scored. For example pitchers were no longer allowed to spit on the ball to make it harder to hit, and baseballs were changed more often so that they stayed harder and were easier to hit farther. Another important rule change in baseball was the addition of the designated hitter. In 1973, the American League allowed pitchers to substitute a hitter so that they didn’t have to hit. Because pitchers are generally worse at hitting, this was another rule that was meant to encourage more scoring. However, some of these rules seem like they jeopardize the integrity of baseball. Hitting is perhaps the most defining quality of the sport, and the designated hitter rule allows a player to participate in the sport without ever having to pick up a bat. But just because the rules are different doesn’t mean it is a different sport, it just means the sport is evolving.

Sports can evolve for a number of different reasons. Baseball decided to change the rules because they were losing fans and wanted to increase scoring. In the NFL, player safety has become a hot topic that has determined many rule changes. Some sports don’t even have to change rules for the sport to evolve. Sports like golf and tennis have changed dramatically simply from the changing technology in equipment. Tennis racquets have changed dramatically over the past several decades which has changed the nature of the sport. Tennis players can now hit the ball much faster. The 10 fastest serves ever recorded have all occurred in the last four years. Golf has experienced a similar change as golf equipment has gotten more advanced. Nike’s new golf commercial shows how much golf ball technology has changed over the years.

Perhaps sports simply change naturally with time. There is no “right” way to play football. It has changed continually since its creation, and it will continue to change as our society changes. Today we are more aware of the problems with player safety in sports, especially with full-contact sports like football, so we act accordingly. I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s bad to change the rules of football in order to protect the long term health of its players, and that’s exactly what has happened. It is natural for sports to evolve, and it doesn’t hurt the integrity of the sport.