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Monday, May 30, 2011
 
Changing rules

MLB, team officials, and the media are talking about the rules governing collisions at home plate, following the pretty gruesome injury Giants Catcher Buster Posey suffered in this collision last week.




ESPN's Jayson Stark inadvertently touched on two significant jurisprudential issues and how sports reveals them. First, Stark decries that it took this injury to get people talking about changing these rules:
It always takes something like this -- something like the horrifying sight of Buster Posey lying there, face in the dirt, writhing in pain -- to get folks talking. Why is that, anyway?
Now, after the fact, people are asking what we can do to protect both catchers and baserunners from these scary two-vehicle pileups at home plate. NOW, in retrospect, people wonder if there's a way to tweak the rulebook in the name of safety. So here's a question: How come, in baseball, we never seem to have conversations about what we can do to prevent these moments BEFORE they happen? Why is it always after the fact?
Why? Because law is almost always reactive. Legislators (and, as I have argued before, the Commissioner and MLB are, at bottom, legislative actors) make legal rules in response to a problem, usually after the problem has been demonstrated by one fairly horrific or problematic example. But that is in the basic nature of legislation. We usually do not know we need to change a legal rule to prevent X until X occurs and we see the full consequences of X. Or at least to see the full consequences of X to know that the cost of allowing X to continue outweighs whatever benefits from it.

Moreover, law responds to individual stories, which are what overcomes the stasis needed to change rules, even in a relatively simple system such as a sports league. Collisions at home were not considered a problem in need of a solution; the occasional high-profile injury (Ray Fosse, anyone?), while known and unfortunate, did not outweigh these collisions as a long-standing part of the game. Now, everyone is rushing to act because this one set of facts put the issue on the legislative table.



Second, Stark points out that: 1) No one can figure out what the best rule should look like and 2) Catchers were the group most opposed to changing the rules. This demonstrates the problem of legislating off of single, rare, especially horrific stories or sets of facts. Rulemakers tend to ignore the uniqueness of the one story or its outlier nature and rush to change the rule to make sure this unique event does not happen again. But in doing so, they risk eliminating the positive aspects of the old rule and creating a new regime that, while eliminating the targeted problem, creates a host of new ones. In a rush to act, they also risk misweighing the costs/benefits of the old rule, ignoring that the unique story is "part of the game" and outweighed by its benefits. This is why it is so telling that the players most affected by the situation oppose the change--they understand that injuries happen and accept that as the risk. The question is how much rulemakers will consider that "expertise." On the other hand, I am surprised no one has mentioned concussions and head injuries. Although there is no evidence of a problem based on diagnoses, it is logical that some head injuries are involved with the sorts of collisions involved. If so, it gives legislators something to act on beyond this one particularly gruesome case.





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