A Story of Sports and Losing Battles

You are the director of a large youth basketball league. Thousands of kids of all ages learn the game on your watch, and many go on to college and pro careers. Your organization is very successful, because – although it has a reputation for being very tough to play in – it plays by NBA rules and really does help kids learn game right.

One day, some people approach you and suggest you change the rules of the game.

It should be played on half-court only, they tell you. Both teams should play offense at the same time, and both teams should be in a race to score the most baskets in the same hoop. They insist they are not trying to mess with the existing game, but think you should approve a rule change that allows for people to play this way.

What do you do?

You don’t have an inflated sense of your own importance – life will go on regardless of your decision. And while such a change doesn’t rub you the right way, you certainly don’t object to people playing the game differently on their own time.

But you have concerns. You know, good intentions notwithstanding, that even kids who don’t play this way will inevitably be affected by the change. And kids who grow up playing this new way – regardless of whether they prefer it – will no longer be equipped for the college and pro careers of which they dream. They haven’t had the opportunity to develop the right skills and instincts. They haven’t had the chance to be mentored by older players who know the real game, and it will be hard for them to emulate such people when they have no context for it.

You love the game of basketball. You think it teaches crucial life skills that are unique to the game, and changing the game into a race that requires no patience doesn’t seem right. You know your league is tough, and not everybody makes it – but you think there’s a value to that, and you know that changing the game so dramatically will change the kind of people its players grow up to be. This matters, because even if not all such change is bad, those kids will not be qualified to play in the big leagues. Changing the rules will have consequences for the people who depend on your league to teach them the game, and changing the rules will not change the larger picture of what the other leagues – and the NBA – do. Because changing perceptions does not change reality.

But if you choose to fight against the rule change, it looks like you will be fighting against the tide. An increasingly large number of people in the area support playing with the new rules. The folks lobbying for the change have even gotten a lot of local coaches to explain basketball to their teams in terms of the new rules (some of the parents object to this, but it’s not up to them what the coaches teach). You find yourself being verbally abused, called old-fashioned, and even accused of hating the people who want to play the new way.

You know this isn’t true. Your feelings have nothing to do with hatred; they have everything to do with a love for the game and what it does for the kids, and a broader understanding of your league’s value to the bigger picture of the community and the game at large. But people don’t see things your way. They don’t want to believe in the sincerity of your good intentions. They don’t want to give up their way of playing the game (which is fine with you), nor do they want to give up their dream of getting you to support and subsidize their way of playing it (which isn’t).

Yet you don’t back down. You fight what appears to be the losing battle. You enter the game as the #16 seed playing the #1 seed, yet you show up and play your heart out anyway. Partly it’s because of everything you know about how the game is really played, and the bigger picture consequences of changing it. But even if you forgot all that – even if, like your neighbors, you forgot what has made your league work for so long – you wouldn’t be able to convince yourself to give up the fight. Because no matter how many fights the innovators win, no matter how they change the superficial rules and terms your league uses, they cannot change one fact you know to be true: whatever the merits of their new game, it is not basketball.

1 Comment

  • February 8, 2011

    Bryan W

    Interesting analogy