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The Unwritten Rules and Crossing the Line

Discussion on this topic is riddled with subjectivity. Perception of “the unwritten rules” is altered for individuals based on their personal experiences, the specific situation they are in, and the severity in which one of these unwritten rules is broken.

What are the unwritten rules of sports and what do they mean?

An unwritten rule, for anyone unfamiliar, is something of a behavioral custom or etiquette that is technically not voiced or written into law. In sports, there are a number of do’s and don’ts that have been assumed respect of the game—whichever game that may be—forever. People tend to go to exceptional lengths to address and correct the breakers of these generally accepted, technically non-existent rules. It’s often a fleeting moment, washed away from memory by most, but the players and coaches who feel they were done wrong in those moments tend to hold a grudge about it and seek opportunities to get even.

In baseball, you don’t lay down a bunt to break up a no-hitter. In football, you burn out the clock rather than running up the score. In soccer, they say you should kick the ball out of bounds when an opposing player gets injured. Each of these ideas are unwritten rules of their respective sports that are assumed to be followed by all. Breaking these rules doesn’t lead to a penalty or discipline on the field, but often causes unrest between the rule breaker and their opponent.

We saw an unwritten rule of basketball broken in the NBA last season:

Zion Williamson is one of the most prolific dunkers in the league today, and let loose on this 360-windmill slam in a game against the Suns. The crowd went crazy, and his teammates loved it, so what was the problem? The most generally accepted unwritten rule of basketball is that if your team is far ahead late in the fourth quarter and the shot clock is turned off, you don’t drive to the bucket and dunk. It’s like unnecessary salt in the wound of a beatdown. While it is not a real violation of the rules, it is completely frowned upon and perceived as disrespectful.

Now for some context. The Pelicans and Suns played a chippy playoff series against one another in 2021 and there had been bad blood between them since. Williamson was hurt at the end of the year and was unable to play in that series, so he had to sit back and watch as the two teams went at it. When the opportunity—in his eyes—arose to rub some salt in the Suns’ wound during this 10-point victory, he took advantage of the moment to get even.

There was a skirmish between the teams and coaches after the game, and Williamson was asked about his decision to dunk with time expiring by media members after the game. He responded with a thoughtful answer stating that it was out of character for him, but that he felt it was an opportunity to settle the score with the Suns.

The unwritten rules of sports demand a certain level of personal conduct and respect to opponents, but can only be disputed among the players and coaches involved when one is broken. Taking the time to talk to your athlete about the unwritten rules of their game so that they can start to understand the intricacies of sportsmanship in the sports they play. Whether or not there are appropriate moments to break unwritten rules is up to each individual to decide, but understanding the roots of why they are observed is an advantage to every young athlete.

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2 Responses

  1. Concerning the unwritten rules of sports ( Sportsmanship )

    I believe those rules do not exist anymore ( it’s a shame it is that way now ) because of the way the players now demonstrate, strut and frown and stare down their opponent during the game. That is disrespectful isn’t it??

    Zion dunking on somebody late in the game is the same as someone hitting a 3 point shot at the end of the game when it doesn’t matter to the final score or a baseball player bunting for a hit late in a game.

    Bunting to get a hit for your team to give your team the chance to Win should never be frowned upon because the object is to get on base anyway you can to help your team win.

    I coached and played baseball and basketball in high school and college and as a player and coach you wanted to always give your team a chance to WIN!!

    It is funny how it is OK to put down your opponent in the beginning of the game or middle of the game but you’re not supposed to do it at the end of the game.

    That is not consistent with Good Sportsmanship and that’s why I don’t think it exist much anymore and like I said earlier in this message, What a Shame!!

    Skip Goley B.S., M.Ed.
    Basketball Coach/Consultant

  2. Earlier tonight I sent a message concerning “the unwritten rules in sport”

    I hope I said I coached and played high school basketball and baseball and coached college basketball.

    If I did not, that is what I meant to say.

    I just want to make sure what I said concerning my playing and coaching was the truth.


    Skip Goley B.S., M.Ed.
    Basketball Coach/Consultant

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