If the Rules Ain't Broke Don't Fix Them; But What If They Really Are Broke? (TWPC Part 2)

Richard Hunkler, PhD.
Water Polo Planet
09/15/09

Now that all the medals have been given out, all the protests have been filed, and a few referees have been raked over the hot coals by people on the Message Board maybe it’s time we look at rules through a glass half empty rather than a glass half full. We, in the water polo community, are so full of ourselves that we actually believe that water polo is the greatest game in the cosmos and anybody that doesn’t believe that doesn’t have all his or her oars in the water. (I am probably one of those persons.) However, if you think other people believe that then you were not looking at the same water polo stands I was looking at during the World Championship games. Wake up people because Rome is a water polo town and, for god’s sake, they even have a professional league in Italy. If we can’t attract large crowds to come see the most talented players in the world, at the World Championships in Rome, then what chance are we going to have in getting teams to start playing water polo in Peoria, Illinois; Dime Box, Texas; Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania; and so on and so forth. Duh! You don’t  need to have a PhD in Sport Psychology to know that if we continue on the same path we have been traveling the last 10 years there will not only be no handwriting on the coach’s clipboard there will be no coaches much less a water polo clipboard.

Old/New RulesIn my opinion for us to survive we are going to have to generate more participants, more coaches, more referees, and whether you like it or not, many more spectators and fans. Money and fans make sports popular today not a bunch of diehard purist who think rules that were created decades ago are both off limits and sacrosanct. If we are to save our sport then we are going to have to do something about the rules and every rule is going to have to be placed on the table for discussion. We are going to have to make our game as modern looking as the new FINA water polo ball. We can readily change the color of our water polo ball whether it needs it or not but we can't change the rules when they are not working. Does that make sense to you? Consider the Men’s and Women’s World Championships that were just played in Rome. If they were not an indicator that the rules and/or the interpretation of the current rules are broke then it is time for me to retire because the dynamic, fluid game that I once knew and loved so much is dead! Water Polo used to be a game where skills and smarts were King and Queen.  In today’s game of brutality and muscle the number of goals off drives and the number of goals off counter attacks have almost become extinct. In the most recent Men’s and Women’s World Championships the number of goals made off the drive or the counter attack could be counted on one hand.  And the last two sets of water polo rules have been a disaster because they have caused our exciting dynamic and fluid game of water polo to become static and boring. 

The Emperor or should I say the god of today’s game is the six-on-five play. How exciting is it to watch 6 field players pass the ball back and forth until the shot is taken – a shot that only results in a goal about 30 to 40 percent of the time. This is just a small amount more exciting than watching 5 players passing the ball around the perimeter trying to get the ball to the 2 meter player for a possible ejection. What is as exciting as watching the ball being passed about the perimeter is watching the person receiving the ball being fouled? How exciting would basketball be if there were only six or seven baskets scored in a game. We need more goals to make water polo exciting and more importantly we need more exciting goals than six-on-five goals – more perimeter goals, more 2 meter goals, more penalty shot goals, more counter attack goals and more driving goals.

We also need a set of rules that can be understood by a sixth grader not by a student of hieroglyphics. We need rule interpretations that don’t change from tournament to tournament – interpretations that don’t favor countries but rather favor the game of water polo. We need to keep excitement to a maximum and politics to a minimum. And the rough play at 2 meters that draws the most number of ejections and contra calls is about exciting to watch as watching two Sumo wrestlers trying to get their arms around each other and besides most referees tend to call these fouls differently anyway. The referees allow both the 2 meter player and the 2 meter defender to wrestle for position at 2 meters. But if the 2 meter defender becomes too physical he or she is ejected or if the 2 meter player becomes too physical a contra foul is called. The million dollar question is how does the referee decide who is being “too” physical. Calling the actions of one of these two players too physical is similar to calling Angelina Jolie “too” beautiful - it just doesn't make good common sense. Also it appears that the referees try to call fouls not the way they are meant to be called but they are called to please the TWPC members who are watching the games. This is done so the referees are allowed to referee more important games. Doesn’t the TWPC know that at this level ALL games are important? The World Championship is not the place to teach referees how to referee.

Television this year was a mixed blessing because it gave the water polo community the chance to watch some excellent games and it gave the rest of the world the chance to see how confusing the present day game can be. If the so called pundits and experts were confused by some of the calls shown on TV and some experienced players, coaches and referees were scratching their heads more than once about some of the calls then what do you think was going through minds of the novice and uninitiated fans and spectators? I can tell you one thing for certain and that is the new spectators did NOT have "visions of sugar-plums dancing in their heads" as they watched the World Championship games. I betcha that one lousy penalty shot which was called in the USA versus Croatia game that put Croatia back in the game to twenty other identical game situations in which a penalty shot was not called that these games neither endeared nor created, many if any, new lifelong advocates for the game of water polo.

Here are some questions that must have been going through the minds of novice, uninitiated, and even veteran fans because at times these same question were running through my mind as well:

What is an ejection foul and what is not?

What is a 5 meter penalty shot foul and what is not?

What is a contra foul and what is not?

For example in a World Championship refereed game I saw three almost identical situations in which the 2 meter player earned inside water and one 2 meter player was awarded a 5 meter penalty shot, another 2 meter player’s defender was given an ejection, and the third 2 meter player’s defender was given an ordinary foul. The only consistency that I saw in the refereeing at this year’s Men’s and Women’s World Championships was the “consistency of being inconsistent” (there were a few referees who were exceptions to this observation). Most of this inconsistency, I believe, was caused by the actual “Gate Keepers” of the rules and that was the members of the TWPC. I said it earlier and I will say it again,” The World Championship is not the place to teach referees how to referee.”

Our only hope to get better rules is to have people appointed to the TWPC on the basis of competency and merit and not on the basis of politics. But after reading the make up of the new TWPC my hopes for better rules have been pushed to the bottom of the pool similar to that of a 2 meter player with weak legs. LEN the organization that helped to bring us more violence to the international and local game of water polo now has a clear majority of 8 votes on the TWPC and the Americas have only 3 votes. There are 15 votes on the committee and 5 of the votes represent countries that do not have National Women's Teams is sad but to have zero, nada, none women on the committee is not only sad it is unacceptable. What can you expect from a "good old boys'" organization like FINA that at one time tried to have synchronize swimming and not women's water polo to be the female counter part of men's water polo in the Olympics. Why didn't Chris Ramsey and the USAWP vehemently object to this debacle of the representation of women on the TWPC? Did they sell the women's water polo soul not for a few pieces of silver but for a Vice Presidential position - a Vice Presidential position without a majority of TWPC votes to back it up? Don't tell me I don't know anything about international water polo politics and don't even think about trying to tell me I don't know anything about what is right and fair because it appears I know a great deal more than Chris Ramsey does. It also appears the more things change the more they stay the same. Here is what I said a couple of years ago about the TWPC in the article, Does FINA's TWPC Need Some Happy Feet?:

Folks, this is why we need more people with “happy feet” on FINA’s TWPC. We need people that walk to a different 2 meter player, a two meter player who is not exempt from the rules that everyone else in the water has to follow and a 2 meter  player who is not two nanoseconds away from looking and acting like a Sumo wrestler. We need people who are not afraid to place the world water polo communities’ concerns ahead of those of LEN. We need people that will create rules that allows not just nations but also the game of water polo to win the Olympics by becoming one of the most popular sports in the Olympics. We need people who will stand up for water polo and you will never hear another person say to them, “What’s the matter? The big cat LEN got your tongue?”

You say Doc, “You need to be somewhat more practical and quit spouting such grandiose ideas.” This can be answered with a story my Daddy told me. “Son if you want to be a great jumper then don’t set the height to the ceiling in this room as your goal but rather set the height to the stars as your goal. Because when you jump for the ceiling and miss, all you do is fall on your butt on the floor, but when you jump for the stars and miss you will probably fall on your feet (happy feet?) on the moon.”  Finally, we need several Mumbles on the TWPC who will dare to be different and who will dare to place the game of water polo above everything but their family. Maybe, just maybe, then the TWPC might be able to save the sport of water polo?

To some I may sound naive and to others I will sound like a broken record but too many of those who love water polo as much as I do I hope I sound similar to the Robot in the old TV show, “Lost in Space”, when the Robot would yell something similar to, “Danger! Danger Water Polo community!” Let’s begin to shout together an update of the slogan that was used to help elect Clinton and hopefully it can be used to help revive water polo to a dynamic and fluid game, “ITS THE RULES STUPID!”

Email Coach Hunkler at rhunkler@waterpoloplanet.com