On unwritten rules, video game football and the Oregon girls state championship

I don’t know which of us was the weird one, but my friend Bill and I had dramatically different approaches to playing video games.

Our game was the NCAA College Football series. The competition between Bill and I began in 2003, and he and I could not have played the game more differently. The first difference was in the mere selection of teams. I often chose Notre Dame, a team I have kind of cared about since I was a kid living in Indiana, or some other random school that felt good at the time. Georgia or something.

Bill almost always chose Oklahoma, because Oklahoma was awesome. Bill has never been an Oklahoma fan, he just liked that OU was awesome on the game. Now, there was no technicality stopping me from just picking USC or Florida or whoever. It wasn’t like he expected me to choose an inferior team as a way of setting some kind of handicap. But nonetheless I did not do this, even though I knew this put me at a decided physical disadvantage (and I realize how ridiculous that is to write about a collection of pixels).

We also called plays differently. I ran the ball a lot. I’d run the option, I’d run between the tackles, I’d set up the pass. Bill, on the other hand, quickly figured out that with Oklahoma, a play called “Slot Wheels” was pretty much indefensible. He didn’t complete it every time, but every time he did, it went for a minimum of 40 yards. And he completed it a lot.

So Bill just ran slot wheels every time. I’d blitz every time, and I’d either get there or I wouldn’t, and this was basically how our games were won and lost. I would run on first down and I’d punt on fourth down and I’d either sack Jason White or I wouldn’t.

It was not a very realistic representation of football, but Bill could not have cared less about that. He would have beaten me 100 to nothing if he could, and on one baffling night he very nearly did. He laughed until his face looked like a tomato.

I was a little different. Certainly I considered it a thrill to humiliate him, but I liked it when the game came down to real football strategy — when to throw, when to blitz, when the draw might be there, when to use your timeouts. All that. I wanted to beat him, but I wanted to beat him because I had outdone him with my football intellect. Bill wanted to exploit a weakness in the game to the fullest extent.

Neither of us is “right.” Neither of us was trying to win by cheating. I am no more noble for wanting to win a video game in a realistic way. I am probably more of a dork, actually.

All of which brings me to the Oregon Class 5A girls state championship basketball game.

You may have heard about this game by now. The final score was 16-7. The reason was that the underdog in the game, Willamette, decided its best opportunity to beat a Springfield team it had already lost to three times this year was to hold the ball until the end of the quarter and take a 3-pointer. This strategy was designed to reduce the effect of Mercedes Russell, who is (evidently) otherwise unstoppable.

It worked, kind of. Russell only scored seven points, although that was the same number Willamette scored, and Russell’s team won.

This brings up a couple questions. The first — why is there still not a shot clock in high school basketball? — is ultimately dependent on the answer to the second — should people be expected to abide by unspoken rules?

The result of that game is deeply unsatisfying, of course. I don’t think very many people would disagree with that. All of the things that make basketball aesthetically wonderful were removed. The game was far more interesting than a girls basketball game could otherwise expect to be, but for reasons that have little to do with basketball itself.

Assuming all you know about the person who coaches Willamette is that they are the kind of person who would try to win a state championship by (theoretically) taking four shots the  entire game, do you assume this is a good person or not?

Does this bother you? If Willamette had won 7-6, would you have considered that more or less of an accomplishment than if it had won 55-54?

In other words, do you expect people to follow unwritten rules?

I have not discussed this game with my friend Bill, but I have a high level of confidence he would find that strategy both (1) hilarious and (2) totally defensible. To him, the object is to win the game, to get the girl to go out on a date with you, to get the free upgrade at the rental car counter, to get a few extra potato oles tossed into your Taco John’s order, and anything (legally) done in service of those goals is perfectly acceptable, no matter how transparent or cheap or inauthentic it may seem to someone else. Once you get the girl, it doesn’t matter how you did it. You can do anything you aren’t specifically told you can’t do. I assume that’s how he would see this.

My perspective is different. I don’t think Willamette did anything wrong. I just don’t like it. I think that strategy was an attempt to exploit the good intentions of the people who make the rules in high school basketball. The reason there is no shot clock in high school basketball is that high school basketball is supposed to be a training ground. It’s where you learn to run the motion offense, to set a good screen, to use a screen, to make a V-cut, to throw a backdoor bounce pass. It’s where Normal Dale tells you to make five passes before taking a shot. A shot clock would distract from the teaching. Basketball is a tricky game. You don’t really figure it out until you’re too old to play it. Putting a timer on a high school basketball team’s possessions would only impede that.

That’s why there is no shot clock in high school basketball, and as long as nobody has their fingers crossed behind their back, then it can be played at a pace that suits the sport. Up and down. Run your offense, set your screens, make your five passes, take the shot.

Yeah, you can run off the clock if that’s what you really want to do, but is that really what you want to do?

Most of the time, people do abide by unwritten rules, and everything works OK. And I don’t blame Willamette for trying to win the game that way, just as I don’t blame my friend Bill for  running “slot wheels” all the time. You play to win the game.

It’s just that this is the kind of thing that forces people to write down the rules, and I think some rules are best left unwritten.

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