Rules are the reason why most sports maintain some sense of decency and decorum. Without rules, all sports—from football to pickleball—would descend into anarchy.
How do I know? Rules may stop most people from committing crimes, but they also inspire the highest levels of mischief.
The existence of rules prompts athletes and coaches to turn those same rules into a bureaucratic stranglehold on their opponents—or worse, a bludgeon by which the minutiae of a particular rule is exploited mercilessly.
The "cheap shot" operates within a gray area that keeps one foot in the world of rules and the other in the world of anarchy. Sometimes a cheap shot is blatantly illegal, but the reason it's call "cheap" is because nothing can really stop it and often the official judgment can't be rendered in real time.
Cheap shots infuriate because they reveal the fragility of the rules.
Worse still? Far too often, the benefits outweigh the risks; a multi-game suspension or fine is a fair price for knocking a great player out of a game or series.
While not all cheap shots are legitimate attempts to injure another person, plenty have shown that if you want to make your opponent suffer, all it takes is a split second of chaos.
These are the most painful cheap shots in sports.
When a football player gets thrown or shoved to the ground well out-of-bounds, the "late hit" is almost always more about the rule infraction than inflicting harm to a player.
But not in this case.
Auburn cornerback Ryan White's shove of Missouri running back Henry Josey—near the end of the third quarter during the SEC Championship Game—sent the player careening into a cart parked away from the sideline.
The play resulted in a personal foul, and Josey, whose momentum was stopped when his back slammed into the cart, ended up in a ton of pain.
Cheap shots infuriate athletes and fans because they undermine the concept of talent, hard work and a little good fortune as the honorable formula for success—in a game, over a season and throughout a career.
So when someone violates the spirit of this ideal, we want to see them suffer the consequences, which can be frustratingly elusive in many cases.
Then, you see this junior varsity hockey player make the decision to cross the line and send an unprotected opponent into the boards—and he nails it in the best possible way—by slamming his own helmet into the boards.
There's a good reason that eye-gouging is taboo in every situation, except for the most vicious street fight. Broken bones, cuts and bruises heal, but if you lose an eye...it's gone forever.
Even your worst enemies have a modicum of empathy for how horrible it would be to lose one or both eyes.
Last November, Iowa State guard DeAndre Kane went there against BYU, plunging his fingers into the eyes of center Eric Mika. Mika crumpled to the floor, and Kane was quickly ejected.
During the first inning of Game 2 of the 2010 NLCS, St. Louis Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday broke up a potential double play when he slid hard into San Francisco Giants second baseman Marco Scutaro. Scutaro initially stayed in the game but left in the fifth inning due to a hip injury.
This is a great example of baseball's insane status as a pro league that is 99.9 percent non-contact yet religiously adherent to maintaining a fraction of the game that is highly effective at injuring players.
Thankfully, the MLB appears to be moving away from that philosophy.
Retired footballer Zinedine Zidane's infamous headbutt on Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup Final between France and Italy was unique in that it was a dumb decision by one of the world's best players.
And, it couldn't have happened on a bigger stage.
What gets lost in the aftermath of Zidane's ejection and Italy's victory is it looked like it really hurt.
Zidane's head resembles a cannon ball, and when he buried his crown into the sternum of Materazzi, it must have felt like one.
After a monster playoff game with the New England Patriots, running back LeGarrette Blount essentially transformed from the guy who socked a Boise State player in 2009 to a Sports Illustrated cover boy.
Such is life in the 21st century. But, looking back at the incident (which by some accounts was not that unreasonable of a response), it's amazing that Broncos defensive end Byron Hout stayed upright—he was completely caught off guard, and Blount was right on target.
The terms "community college" and "cheap shot" don't typically refer to baseball, but in this case, Yavapai College outfielder Austin O'Such's completely arbitrary takedown of unsuspecting Scottsdale infielder Jake Bamrick in 2012 brings them together in painful harmony.
After both teams left their benches over a play at first base, Bamrick—who was just standing by second base away from the action—was absolutely leveled by O'Such as he ran toward the action.
And, few things hurt worse than a collision you aren't bracing for. Bamrick was in obvious distress, but fortunately he escaped serious injury.
Over the last decade, the NFL has seen its share of awkward and often brutal-looking tackles that are something more than the typical wrap-up. Dudes have had their dreads ripped out, and in the case of horse-collar tackles, the league has acted to minimize some of the more dangerous methods.
However, outside those tackles specifically defined as illegal, pretty much anything is fair game—and in Vernon Davis' case, that includes man-parts.
While Rams safety T.J. McDonald didn't break any written rules, if there was ever line that shouldn't be crossed, using a guy's groin for leverage must be it:
While the controversy over boxer Floyd Mayweather's fourth-round KO of Victor Ortiz in 2011 was less about the technical details and much more about perceived "sportsmanship" (and 80-year-old Larry Merchant's desire to fight Mayweather), it's clear that "Money" exploited the moment.
Ortiz probably wasn't going to win the fight, regardless of how it ended, but Mayweather made certain that he did end it when the opportunity presented itself.
Following a timeout when the referee stopped the fight to deduct a point after Ortiz headbutted Mayweather, Ortiz went to tap gloves. Knowing that the timeout was over, Mayweather put his opponent on the mat with two crushing blows.
Duke and Christian Laettner: Was there ever a couple that seemed more timelessly right for each other? He and Duke dominated much of the NCAA basketball world while they were together, and they did it with a smirk and a timely elbow.
In 1991, Laettner hit the floor after tangling for a loose ball during a game against UConn. While he was down, UConn's Rod Sellers elbowed Laettner in the face and then proceeded to dribble his head.
Mexican footballer Rafa Marquez already had a reputation as a dirty player and all-around jerk when he signed with the New York Red Bulls in 2010.
He proved all the naysayers right in 2012 when he sent Shea Salinas flying into the pitch during a match against San Jose.
Marquez followed the takedown with a kick to Salinas' chest, breaking the guy's collarbone in the process.
After two lockouts and much soul-searching, the NHL finally decided to take tangible steps toward eliminating the kind of hockey goonery that keeps their stars off the ice and puts veritable "assassins" and bodyguards on the payroll.
While retired New York Rangers winger Adam Graves was a good hockey player, his two-handed slash of Pittsburgh Penguins legend Mario Lemieux was nothing more than an operation to (successfully) knock the star out of the 1991 Conference Final.
Graves broke Lemieux's wrist with the chop, leaving him writhing in agony on the ice. It was a painful reminder that treating someone's body part like a puck really hurts.
The slash in hockey, when viewed in real time, can appear deceptively plain. A stick swatted across a leg or arm; a chop across an opponent's stick.
However, none of this applies to then-Islanders winger Chris Simon's gratuitous weaponization of the hockey stick in a 2007 game against crosstown rivals, the New York Rangers.
Simon's two-handed slash to Ryan Hollweg's face following a hard check against the boards was unambiguous and horrifying. He made his intentions quite clear, lining Hollweg up and making him eat composite fiber.
If you're a basketball fan, then I'm willing to bet that when you saw the words "painful," "cheap shots" and "sports" used together in a sentence, Metta World Peace burst forth in your mind through some kind of rogue, involuntary game of word association.
The troubled New York Knicks small forward has experienced his fair share of bizarre and controversial moments over his career, but this one when he was with the Los Angeles Lakers makes a strong case for being the most psychotic.
His vicious elbow to former Oklahoma Thunder guard James Harden (apparently as a form of celebration?) in 2012 resulted in a seven-game suspension for World Peace and a concussion for Harden.
The Penguins-Bruins rivalry was a high-drama affair because of its history of sordid on-ice incidents, high-stakes series and players who genuinely hated each other.
Nothing symbolizes this more than the bitter, personal rivalry between former Pens defenseman Ulf Samuelsson and former gritty Bruins winger Cam Neely.
During the early '90s, the two men expressed their displeasure through violence. And no single incident inspires more lingering hatred for Bruins players and coaches from that era (and fans from all eras) than Samuelsson's knee-on-knee leg check in the 1991 Conference Final.
The violent collision sent both sprawling to the ice and is often cited as being one of the reasons Neely's career was impacted by lingering injuries.
Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh may have made headlines for his various extracurricular...ahem...activities involving (mostly) quarterbacks, but while his acts of rage were cheap, they always seemed more dumb than vicious.
Former NFL defensive end Albert Haynesworth, on the other hand, set the gold standard for DTs. With a vicious double stomp to the face of then-Cowboys center Andre Gurode in 2006, his cleats inflicted a laceration that required 30 stitches.
That's the kind of thing that happens when a 350-pound man steps on your face.
In a perfect example of what it actually means to gain notoriety, former New Mexico women's soccer player Elizabeth Lambert made headlines after her virtuoso performance as a one-woman wrecking crew in a match against BYU in 2010.
From slamming girls to the ground by their ponytails to the standard kicking and shoving, Lambert personified mayhem that day, and the pain she wrought, through every dirty tactic invented by man, was nearly unprecedented in its scope and execution.
Before the Minnesota Wild's Matt Cooke threw his elbow into Bruins center Marc Savard's head in 2010, he was a player who clearly operated in the margins of the NHL's rules but was tolerated as one of those salty grinders that people love to hate.
However, after knocking out Savard, leaving him with a severe concussion and effectively altering the course of his career thereafter, Cooke—and players like him—lost the benefit of the doubt.
During the second matchup between AFC North foes the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals in Week 16 of the 2013 season, Steelers special teamer Terence Garvin blasted Bengals punter Kevin Huber while blocking downfield on a punt return.
The blindside helmet-to-chin collision resulted in a $25,000 fine for Garvin and the hamburgerization of everything from shoulders up for Huber—who suffered a cracked vertebra and broken jaw.
Then-Vancouver Canuck winger Todd Bertuzzi's attack on former Colorado Avalanche center Steve Moore in 2004 was the kind of on-ice assault that would be criminal in any other context.
Moore fractured three vertebrae, suffered a concussion and was left with residual brain damage. Bertuzzi ended his NHL career that night.