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The different rules of sport post-restart

We cannot expect the world after Coronavirus to look like it did before, and the same applies to the sports that we know and love. The rules and regulations of sport will need to change to reflect this, and on-field action could look different for spectators as a result.

With reference to examples across different sports, this article will describe how sports are changing their rules for the restart, and suggest some guiding principles to assist in the process. Changes will often be essential. The more profound the impact of the rule changes on competition, the more likely they are to raise wider integrity questions. It is a very difficult job for sports bodies to balance player safety, integrity of competition, alongside the economic imperative of a restart. However, sports now also have a unique opportunity to accelerate changes to their sport and increase the attractiveness of their product for viewers and broadcasters.

Protocols and guidelines

Look out for jockeys racing in facemasks, football substitutes social-distancing in the stands, and fewer ball kids on a tennis court. While less likely to affect the result of competition, these logistical protocols and guidelines – not necessarily rule changes per se – will have the biggest impact visually. However, as we will see, they may still raise questions of integrity and enforceability.

Football

It is striking to see physios in extensive PPE, and goals celebrated with simple fist bumps. It will, indeed, be welcome to many viewers that referees are not currently surrounded by players after making a contentious decision. These changes, and more, are included in the Premier League’s “Season 2019/20 Restart Guide”, issued in advance of the Premier League’s return this week. They are logistical protocols issued with a view to reducing the spread of Coronavirus and setting an example to the watching public that, although the sport has returned relatively quickly, it has done so in a responsible and controlled manner.

Questions may arise, should these protocols be breached, as to their enforceability. They have been characterised as guidelines for now; it would seem difficult for a referee, or the league, to take particular action even if players were to breach them, for example by celebrating too closely with teammates or not sitting apart as substitutes.

Tennis

The United States Tennis Association (USTA) has announced that the US Open will be going ahead as planned from 31 August. Expect aesthetic changes due to logistical changes: fewer ball kids (who are unlikely to be required to tend to each player’s towel), and line judges will be replaced by automatic line-calling systems on all but the two largest courts.

However, other logistical protocols proposed in the interest of safety have caused debate and may pose wider questions for the competition. Some top players (Djokovic and Halep, for example) criticised a proposal to limit each player to one support team member on site. Arguably this would disproportionately affect the top players, who have larger support teams than lower-ranked players including coaches, physios, hitting partners and nutritionists. This issue remains to be finalised. However, it shines a light on how certain matters that may be considered purely logistical would, in the eyes of some players, have an impact on their performance.

A further question arises from the logistical restrictions on travel and draw-size. Certain players have voiced concerns as to travel restrictions, such as quarantine either on entry or return. Other players, due to the removal of a qualifying draw this year and the halving of the doubles draw, will not be eligible to compete in the tournament at all. If certain players are ‘locked-out’ of competitions post-restart, either practically (from travel restrictions) or definitively (from draw restrictions), some may question whether it is fair to award ranking points for these competitions. The same concerns around ranking points exist in golf with the restart of the PGA Tour.

Where possible, medical experts should be consulted regarding the necessary solutions. Even after discussion with experts, there will be tough logistical decisions to be made that must balance the concerns of affected players against the economic imperative to hold the competition.

Rule changes – safety

As well as the logistical changes necessary for restarting sport, many sports have implemented, or plan to implement, ‘on-field’ rule changes to improve the safety of players.

Even where rule changes are necessary to deal with Coronavirus concerns, it is still possible that they could benefit certain teams more than others. Therefore it is important, where possible: a) that the rule changes do not go further than they need to in order to achieve the medical/safety objective, and b) that they are brought in following the consent (or at least consultation) of teams and athletes.

Cricket

When cricket restarts, players will not be permitted to use saliva to shine the ball. Repeated use of saliva, after warnings have been issued, will result in 5 runs being awarded to the batting side. This is part of a series of interim rule changes announced by the International Cricket Council (ICC) on 9 June 2020.

Despite the obvious safety justification, this rule change will remove a significant weapon for a certain type of bowler and change the balance between batting sides and bowling sides. Teams with spin bowlers or raw pace will be less affected than teams who rely on swinging the ball.

It will be interesting to see how such a safety-focused rule change may necessitate further adjustments to redress any imbalance caused. The ICC could consider whether, temporarily, other substances such as wax may be used to shine the ball. Alternatively, teams may look to provide other opportunities to bowlers, for example by leaving more grass on the wicket. 

Football

IFAB, the body responsible for the Laws of Football, recently implemented a temporary change to Law 3, allowing five substitutes (raised from three) to be used during a match. It has been argued that this law change may benefit those clubs with strength-in-depth who will be able to take advantage of the increased number of substitutes to keep their players fresh.

However, the justification for these measures has been well-explained by IFAB – managing players’ fitness as competition returns after a long lay-off and keeping players fresh as competition extends into the warmer months. It is welcome that IFAB has also clarified that the five substitutions can only be made at three intervals (not including half time) to avoid the unwanted consequence of clubs using the rule to slow down or break up play. These measures were adopted by the Premier League following approval by the clubs involved.

Rule changes – improving the product

Following the crushing economic impact of the pandemic, broadcasters will be far more discerning as to their spending on sports, so governing bodies and organisers cannot rest on their laurels expecting the same vast broadcasting revenue to pour in. Sports need to continue adapting to provide a desirable product; rule changes can assist with this, and Coronavirus could provide a catalyst for sports to be inventive and accelerate necessary changes.

Rugby union

Rugby has suffered in recent years from the flow of games being stifled by reset scrums. The safety fears of the close proximity of players in scrums have offered rugby law-makers an opportunity to reform this area and justify a change which arguably could improve the sport as a spectacle.

World Rugby recently put forward (among ten optional law changes for return to play) the proposed law change that if a scrum collapses (with no infringement occurring) a free-kick should be awarded to the team with put-in, rather than re-setting the scrum. It is estimated that this law change alone would result in a 30 per cent reduction in the risk of virus transmission.

Likewise, World Rugby proposed a reform of the laws around choke tackles and the introduction of an ‘orange card’ for high tackles; both proposals aim to reduce virus transmission risk, but have the wider implications of lowering the height of tackling generally which would both speed up the game and reduce wider concussion risks.
It would be a good outcome if the pandemic and associated safety risks can be turned with opportunism into a positive change in sports as viewing spectacles.

However, governing bodies should be careful to engage in a consultation process and bring in rule changes in a uniform manner if possible. The proposed rugby law variations are optional for Unions and competitions: the English Premiership has said that it will not adopt any changes, whereas Super Rugby Australia will adopt the majority. This could lead to a divergence in the laws of rugby played across the world which may come to a head when international competition returns, particularly at a time when a more global calendar is being considered by rugby administrators.

Conclusion

The pandemic has forced many sports to adapt their rules. In some instances, safety concerns can even provide an opportunity to accelerate positive changes to the laws of particular sports. However, changes can raise questions of integrity of competition, so sports should consider the following principles when introducing rule changes at this moment:

  1. Where possible, consult with the relevant teams and athletes. If consent cannot be reached, at least be clear as to the legitimate objective that the rule change seeks to achieve. It will be easier to justify changes when advice from medical experts has been obtained and explained to stakeholders;
  2. Where the law change is exclusively to promote safety, do not go further in its application than necessary and attempt to introduce it in a fashion that does not disproportionately affect one group of players more than another. Consider whether the application of the rule is temporary and whether it should be reversed if a vaccine is developed;
  3. Do not be afraid to use the safety considerations to bring forward change in the sport; it may help the sport to thrive. However, look to do this with a positive campaign, consultation, and uniformity when the change is introduced to avoid gaps in the framework appearing further down the line.

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