Better Rules for a Better Game

Doru Roll
Water Polo Planet

Last month the NCAA announced a number of proposed rule changes aimed at improving the game in general, and the women’s game in particular. While the process of revising the rules and improving the game goes on all the time, it seldom happens that such sweeping changes are not only eagerly awaited by coaches and ADs alike, but they are also hailed as “a great step forward for our game.” One author stated that: NCAA hopes to make women's college game more like pros”[1], while another proclaimed: “The NCAA rules committee took a big swing at fixing what ails the sport, announcing an array of proposed alterations to the way the game is played. This no longer is a sport that seems terrified of change.”[2]




It is a secret known to all that the game is in trouble. In one author’s opinion, it ”has been trending toward unwatchable for several years, yet the decision makers in the sport seemed to willfully ignore some of the biggest reasons why. Slow play, excessive defensive physicality and overly controlling coaches had slowed the game to an ugly, inefficient, inartistic crawl.” The general consensus seems to be that the game is not entertaining and almost incomprehensible to the audience, which accounts for its continued decrease in popularity.


Some of the proposed rule changes, such as: standardizing on a 30-second shot clock, advancing the ball to the front court in the final minute of the game and reducing the number of timeouts, are aimed at bringing the college game in line with the pro game. The fact that the NCAA rules are different has long been a divisive and hotly debated topic, with both sides making valid arguments. Some say that the college game is played by teenagers and young adults, and the rules should reflect that, while others firmly believe that the rules should be the same at all levels, otherwise the college player will always be at a disadvantage internationally. One author found that: “Some overly protective of the status quo have argued that reducing the shot clock will lead to more panicked possessions instead of more points. But anything that eliminates the amount of time standing around doing nothing offensively – while the coach gesticulates and orchestrates and tries to call every movement from the sideline – will be an improvement. Getting into the offense more quickly will help.” The vast majority seem to agree: a coaches’ survey found that more than 60% are in favor of the 30-second shot clock.


Other changes, such as: eliminating live-ball timeouts, penalties for faking fouls and renewed enforcement of rules that limit physical play, are aimed at creating a game with a quicker pace, more flow and freedom of movement. Less physicality and less grabby defensive play seem to be universally perceived as an improvement to both the game and the spectator experience. One author goes on to say that: “The reduction in timeouts, … the inability of a coach to intrude on proceedings with a live-ball timeout – those are all wonderful advancements.


The community seems to agree. A member of the NCAA rules committee had this to say: “We believe this change, along with the associated changes to the timeout and foul rules, will address flow of the game and physicality”. But probably the best summation was delivered by the long-time coach of a Midwestern university: “I think it's great, rules that can help make the games more exciting. It will speed up the game and make for a lot more end of the game situations that can be entertaining for the fans.''



If you found the above somewhat confusing, and you haven’t yet heard about these rule changes, you can relax now: this article is not about water polo. It is about college basketball. (Below are links to the original articles quoted above.) The fact that basketball has issues of its own is not surprising at all; what is surprising is how similar these issues are to the problems that plague water polo. Basketball has long been hailed as a model to be emulated by the water polo community, yet upon closer inspection it suffers from practically the same ills.


What is different however is the fact that basketball is not only aware of its problems, but also taking significant steps to correct them. Another radical difference seems to be the degree of transparency and support behind the rule changes. One would think that basketball, with a participation level 25 times larger than water polo, would be more factionalized and parochial, but in reality the opposite seems to be true: the basketball community is embracing change as a necessity. The same is not true for water polo: the lack of transparency does not foster widespread acceptance and support. Maybe water polo suffers from some kind of systemic dysfunctionality, or maybe it’s just a case of a few big fish in a very small pond. Either way, and despite its own flaws, basketball seems to be a good model for change. While there is still something left to change…




[1] NCAA hopes to make women's college game more like pros

[2] College basketball just got better