Imagine waking up tomorrow to discover that you’ve been named head coach of a new franchise in a newly formed professional league called the North American Basketball Association. Like their counterparts in the NBA, your squad will play on a traditional sized basketball court outlined with the same markings and using a basket suspended ten feet from floor. For all practical purposes you’ll be coaching the same game under the same rules… but with one, critically important difference.

There’s no game clock.

The first team to reach 50 points determines half time. The first team to reach 100 is the victor. Game over.

Lest you think this scenario is total fantasy, please know that in the early 1970’s a group of wealthy investors actually discussed the formation of such a league. They envisioned joining the upstart ABA with its colorful red, white, and blue ball and three-point field goal arc to compete with the more established NBA for players and fans. Their dream never got off the ground.

But what if it had?

How would the game have been played differently? With no clock to govern its duration how would you have coached it? To win you must reach 100 points before your opponent. Would you attempt a faster pace? Slower pace? How would you approach defense?

I don’t know how the envisioned league intended to handle shooting fouls, but imagine if instead of being rewarded two free throws you were awarded the ball at half court and if you scored you were immediately given the ball again, in effect being granted two successive possessions. How might this reality affect your coaching strategy? If you were behind an opponent who was closing in on the 100-point mark would you foul the shooter, hoping that you might win the game by preventing two successive scores and extending the game?

Let’s change our fantasy again. Imagine if instead of counting points, the new league simply counted baskets. In other words, no specific point value is assigned to a field goal; two-point and three-point baskets don’t exist. There are simply makes and misses. First team to hit 25 baskets and it’s halftime. First team to make 50 field goals wins the game. How might that change your strategy?

The point?

Whenever we take an established routine or “way of doing things” – cutting the grass, driving to work, drafting a memo, playing a game – and change the rules or circumstances under which the activity takes place, the participants will likely change their behavior.

Sometimes the change in rules or routine produces the behavior we desire. For example, imagine a narrow two-lane highway that becomes a traffic bottleneck each morning and evening. The local town widens the road. The congestion disappears and travel time to and from work is cut just as the town leaders envisioned.

But sometimes the opposite occurs. Despite the best intentions of the decision-makers, widening a road to end congestion may actually create more congestion as motorists who used to avoid the road are now attracted to it in hopes that the travel time has been reduced. In other words, people are not static participants who always react in predictable fashion. The law of unintended consequences often kicks in.

Life is full of examples.

When the Brits ruled colonial India, they were confronted with an outbreak of venomous cobra snakes in Delhi. To curb the tide they offered a bounty for every dead cobra. Initially the program met with great success as large numbers of snakes were killed for the reward. Eventually, though, enterprising citizens changed their behavior. Instead of killing cobras they began breeding them to collect the bounty. When the Brits realized what was happening, they scrapped the reward program. In response, the cobra breeders set their now-worthless snakes free, further increasing the wild cobra population. The well-intended solution had made the situation worse.

In 2008, Airbus made its new A380 quieter than any previously manufactured plane in an effort to improve passenger experience. Unfortunately, they didn’t realize until the aircraft was actually in service that the quieter cabin made it easier for passengers to hear ordinary talking, coughing, sneezing, crying, and various bathroom noises. Instead of improving passenger experience the “quieter” airplane actually annoyed passengers. Airbus was forced to add engine noise back into the cabin.

Today companies are rightly concerned with cyber security so they often require their employees to use complex computer passwords, ones combining upper and lower case, special characters, numbers, and the like. But because people can’t easily remember them, they copy their passwords on a Post-it notes or store them in text files – both of which are less secure than letting the users pick passwords they can actually remember.

And as our fantasy about a basketball league whose games are played without a clock illustrates, sports are no exception. When you change the rules or circumstances under which a game is played, coaches and players are likely to adjust their behavior, and sometimes in ways you did not intend.

Take the overtime format used in college football to prevent games ending in a tie. In his article 8 Dramatic Changes I Would Make To College Football, Ty Duffy argues for the elimination of the tiebreaker. Overtime was a drastic solution to a problem that did not exist. A few games per year ended up tied. Now, many more games finish tied in regulation because having overtime incentivizes teams to play for it. Overtime promotes coach conservatism. Overtime subjects results to a made-for-TV crapshoot that starts on the 25-yard line.”

In 1995 there were 18 ties. A season later, when the overtime format was introduced, the number of games ending in a tie climbed to 26. In 2012, there were 45. The 20-year average? 32.

Though fans love the excitement overtime creates, the number of games requiring the tiebreaker has essentially doubled over the last twenty years because under certain circumstances, coaches play for it.

Duffy thinks this distorts a team’s win-loss record and can skew the public’s perception of a team’s actual prowess. “Did Ohio State look like an 11-1 team in the playoff,” he asks, “or a 9-1-2 team that went 0-1-2 against its three best conference opponents?”

Sometimes the unintended consequences of a rule change do not emerge for years later when they coalesce with other, seemingly unrelated changes in the game’s rules or in cultural norms that exist outside the game.

Last April Sports Illustrated published several fascinating articles describing the challenges NFL coaches face in preparing college players for life in the professional ranks. Many of these challenges stem directly from the NFL’s 1972 decision to move its hash marks closer to the center of the field, placing them at a position 23 yards from the each sideline, 18’ 6” apart, in direct line with the goal post uprights. This was done to insure that each successive play began near the center of the field, forcing the defense to defend a broader, evenly balanced perimeter. This, in turn, would reward the offensive passing game and lead to more wide-open, higher scoring games. And it did. Scoring climbed.

On the college level, the hash marks remained closer to each sideline, separated from one another by 40’ – more than double the distance between the pro hash marks. For years this was a difference without much of distinction. True, college teams tended to favor the running game, many relying on various forms of the option to attack the wide side of the field created by the hash marks, but many also ran pro style offenses. In fact, the recruiting pitch many colleges made to high school blue chippers was “we’ll get you ready for the pros.”

For years the players moving into the professional ranks were generally well prepared for the style they would play in the pros. Quarterbacks were comfortable taking snaps from under center as well as from the shot gun, receivers ran defined, timed routes, linemen could block from a three-point stance, defensive ends knew how to pass rush, and so forth. With several seasons of experience under their belts they fit right in.

But then the world outside the game changed and the paradigm began to break down. Boys at the high school level had more options than their fathers and grandfathers. Not only was there football but soccer and lacrosse, year-round basketball and baseball, AAU and travel teams. And parents had different expectations, too. Not only did coaches have to win, they had to make sports fun.

In response, Sports illustrated recounts how a young Art Briles, coaching high school football in Texas, changed his entire approach to offense, influencing a generation of high school and college coaches in the process. He developed the “spread,” coupling option passing with option running to exploit the width of the field and to attract more kids to come out for football. As the article says, “who wants to get creamed running the I-formation, Wing-T or Wishbone?”

Briles found that if he flanked multiple receivers outside the hash marks he’d have to sacrifice the old tried and true “down and out” receiver route but he could force the defense to choose between defending the run or the pass but not both. This made it easier for his QB to read the defense and added passing to what had traditionally been an option running game. And it was fun to play, catering to a shrinking pool of kids who wanted to play football but didn’t want to grind it out in “three yards and a cloud of dust.”

As the years went by Briles’ offense spread to high schools across the country and then migrated to the college level where the hash marks are nearly as forgiving as what the high school provide and where about dozen schools sign 60% of the top 100 blue chippers each year. If you have few or no blue chippers how do you compete with those who do and keep your job? You run some version of Briles’ spread.

Now, when today’s best kids move through the high school and college ranks to the NFL with its narrowly centered hash marks, they have to learn a whole new game, one in which there are seldom “formations to the boundary.” Changing the pro hash marks 45 years ago, coupled with a series of unforeseen societal changes in the decades that followed, has created a teaching nightmare for today’s NFL coaches.

The law of unintended consequences strikes again.

Basketball, of course, is no stranger to this phenomenon. In my next post I’ll probe how changes in rules, tactics, and the larger society have altered the game, and not always in the intended manner.

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