Biggest Sports Rule Changes of the Last 15 Years
The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said that change is the only constant in life, and he may as well have been talking about the rules of sports.
The rules for college and professional sports have been constantly tweaked and adjusted for decades, so much so that it can be difficult to keep track. The now-infamous "Dez Bryant rule" regarding receivers catching a pass while falling to the ground has already been adjusted by the NFL following months of scrutiny. For a little refresher on other recent changes, we’ll take a look back at 20 of the biggest rule changes of the 21st century.
Though these are not necessarily in any order, each rule change has left an indelible mark on its sport. If history is any indication, though, the current rules are sure to be in flux in the near future.
MLB Adds 2 Wild-Card Teams
Major League Baseball’s decision to expand its playoff field by adding two wild-card teams has already had a major impact on the outcome of the postseason.
In 2012, the first season the field expanded to 10 teams, the St. Louis Cardinals won the National League Wild Card Game and advanced to the National League Championship Series, where they lost to the San Francisco Giants in seven games. The Giants went on to sweep the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.
Last season, both the Giants and the Kansas City Royals made it to the World Series as wild-card teams. The addition of two playoff teams each year has kept more teams in the playoff hunt in the second half of the season, which means fewer fanbases losing interest once their teams fall out of the race.
The Tuck Rule
Perhaps no single rule on this list has had a greater impact on a team than the infamous tuck rule has had on the New England Patriots.
Because the tuck rule was adopted by the NFL in 1999, its inclusion on this list is technically cheating. But rules are meant to be broken, and this particular rule did not become well-known by the public until the AFC divisional playoff game between the Patriots and the Oakland Raiders in 2001.
Because officials overturned Tom Brady’s “fumble” in the fourth quarter (see the one-minute, six-second mark in the video above), the Patriots went on to win the game in overtime en route to their first Super Bowl championship in franchise history.
Since the Tuck Rule Game, the Patriots have won four Super Bowls. The league eliminated the controversial rule in 2013—too little, too late for Raiders fans, though.
The College Football Playoff
The creation of the Bowl Championship Series in 1998 had a revolutionary impact on college football by finally giving the sport a true national championship game, and for that, fans of the game are forever grateful.
Though we’ve seen only one season of the current format, it’s fair to say that this change was a huge success. With pressure already mounting for the playoff field to expand, this is one rule change that might keep getting better.
March Madness Adds 4 More
While the College Football Playoff was a huge success in Year 1, the NCAA men's basketball tournament has been around since 1939. Back then, only eight teams were included, and the field has expanded several times in the years since.
Most recently, the NCAA added four teams to the field in 2011, bringing the total to 68. The addition of the “First Four” games had an immediate impact, with Virginia Commonwealth advancing all the way to the Final Four.
Since then, only two teams—La Salle (2013) and Tennessee (2014)—have advanced from the First Four to the Sweet 16, making the big-picture impact of the First Four relatively small. But the addition of more March Madness games is never a bad thing, so when it comes to the Big Dance, the more, the merrier.
MLB Implements Drug Testing
From 2001 to 2014, Major League Baseball has seen an estimated 15 percent decrease in runs scored and a 23 percent decrease in home runs. There are several factors contributing to this offensive shortage, but perhaps the most influential among them is the implementation of drug testing in 2003.
Since the league began testing, many high-profile players have been suspended for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. The stain of a failed drug test, or even suspicion of guilt, will most likely keep several of the game’s all-time greats out of the Hall of Fame.
NFL Changes Process of a Catch
What happens when a catch isn’t really a catch? It’s a question that’s haunted Cowboys fans since January, when officials ruled that Dez Bryant lost control of Tony Romo’s fourth-down pass before completing the act of the catch during the team's playoff loss against the Green Bay Packers.
Referee Gene Steratore said the following, per the Dallas Morning News: “Although the receiver is possessing the football, he must maintain possession of that football throughout the entire process of the catch. … He maintained possession but continued to fall and never had another act common to the game.”
Steratore was referring to a 2010 rule that makes it so that a player must have possession of the ball throughout the catch, even if the player has already established two feet in bounds with possession and then falls to the ground (yes, very confusing).
The league has since tweaked the rule, removing the term "football move" entirely, according to Mike Pereira of Fox Sports. That won’t make the Cowboys any less frustrated, though, and there is still plenty of subjectivity in the rule's interpretation to make for some more controversy next season.
NHL Adds Shootouts
In need of some added excitement after a labor dispute led to the cancellation of the 2004-05 season, the NHL added shootouts after the end of one overtime period (in the regular season) for the 2005-06 season.
The rule change removed ties from the game, and any time a tie can be avoided, it’s worthy of a celebration.
Soccer Adopts Goal-Line Technology
The International Football Association Board permitted (but did not require) the use of goal-line technology in 2012, and it has since been used in several high-level matches.
France international Karim Benzema scored the first World Cup goal awarded by goal-line technology in a group-stage match against Honduras on June 15, 2014, in Brazil. As the technology becomes more accessible (and therefore less expensive), the use of goal-line technology will continue to spread throughout the world.
MLB All-Star Game: This One Counts
After the infamous 2002 MLB All-Star Game ended in a 7-7 tie, the league decided that it needed to add an incentive to compete and reached an agreement with the players union to award home-field advantage for the World Series to the league that wins the All-Star Game.
Though the decision has been ridiculed, the data shows that the effect has been minuscule so far. Regardless, the rule has removed the possibility of a tie, so that qualifies as a step in the right direction.
NBA Adds Defensive 3-Second Violation
The NBA added the defensive three-second rule prior to the 2001-02 season, and it has had a big impact on the way teams use their centers on defense.
No longer anchored near the rim during the majority of a defensive possession, big men now need to add quickness to their repertoires in order to remain effective. As the term “rim protector” becomes increasingly en vogue in today’s NBA, the need for athletic centers has never been higher.
NCAA Changes Shot Clock to 30 Seconds
The change is meant to speed up the game and add more possessions. In addition, the NCAA has increased the restricted area under the basket, which hinders defenders in the key.
Golf Changes Its Wind Rule
For years, golfers were penalized if wind caused their ball to move on the green after they had addressed it. It wasn’t until 2012 that the USGA finally made the proper adjustment.
The change allows players to play their moved ball without penalty. When winds come into play, like they did for Louis Oosthuizen at The Open Championship this year, this is a welcome change.
NHL Institutes the Avery Rule
When Sean Avery danced in front of Martin Brodeur in an attempt to block the goalie’s view, it appeared to be just another antic of the league’s most infamous agitator.
But Avery’s tactics drew an almost-immediate response from the NHL. The league ruled that an unsportsmanlike-conduct minor penalty would be enforced when “an offensive player positions himself facing the opposition goaltender and engages in actions such as waving his arms or stick in front of the goaltender’s face.”
The league deserves a round of applause for its quick response to one of the most annoying pests the NHL has ever seen.
College Football Adopts Instant Replay
Though instant replay has existed in some form in the NFL since 1986, it wasn’t until 2006 that college football got on board with the program.
Similar to the NFL, coaches have the ability to challenge calls, and they lose timeouts with failed challenges. Replay has become standard across every conference, and with the fast pace of each individual play, it doesn’t hurt to allow officials to take a second look during crucial moments.
MLB Embraces Instant Replay
Instant replay made its official debut in MLB in 2008, and it’s been modified slightly ever since. Today’s form of the replay procedure allows managers to initiate a review of a call from the dugout and retain a challenge after every call that is overturned.
Though some have argued that the replay system unnecessarily delays the game, getting the calls right is the most important thing, and it’s a good thing that baseball has joined the rest of the sports world and embraced the technology of the times.
The Brady Rule
When Tom Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in the 2008 season opener, it didn’t take long for the league to take action. Before the 2009 season, the NFL prohibited defenders on the ground from lunging or diving at the quarterback’s legs.
As the most valuable member of a football team, the league has gone to great lengths to protect its quarterbacks from injury. With an increased emphasis on passing, and with quarterbacks’ salaries on the rise, this is a trend that is unlikely to stop anytime soon.
Tennis Adds Instant Replay
During the 2004 U.S. Open, Serena Williams made several complaints about calls that she felt were incorrectly made against her. When replays showed that the majority of her complaints were warranted, pressure mounted to introduce instant replay to the game.
The use of instant replay in tennis was established in 2006, and it is yet another example of how much technology has impacted sports around the world.
NFL Bans Horse-Collar Tackle
As seen in the video above, Roy Williams was not shy about using the horse-collar tackle to bring opponents down. The injury risk of this type of play led to the NFL banning horse-collar tackles in 2005, and Williams’ penchant for the technique brought about the name "the Roy Williams rule."
The rule was later adopted in college and high school football. Given the already-violent nature of the game, any rule in place to protect players from further injury risk is a good one.
MLB Eliminates Home Plate Collisions
When Buster Posey suffered a season-ending leg injury in 2011 (as shown in the video above), conversations about protecting catchers began around the league. MLB finally added rules to eliminate “egregious” collisions at home plate in 2014.
The rule change prohibits catchers from blocking the plate without possession of the ball. In addition, runners are not allowed to run out of the basepath in order to make contact with the catcher. In the name of player safety, this was a smart move by baseball.
NHL Limits Goaltenders' Padding
In an effort to increase scoring and make things harder on goaltenders, the NHL changed rules to shorten goalies' leg pads prior to the 2013-14 season.
Prior to that season, a goalie’s leg pad could go no higher than 55 percent of the distance between the center of his knee and his pelvis. The new rule shortened that to 45 percent, but there has been virtually no change in goals per game since the 2012-13 season.