From the Sandlot to the Major Leagues

I always have been a firm believer in a level playing surface or fair play in sport. Fair play comes with a set of reasonably drafted rules and an equally reasonable system of enforcement and most competitors respect for the rules. Curling has found itself in a very difficult position with rules, courtesies and sportsmanship over its long and colourful history.  The problem with which curling seems to continually struggle is the line between purely recreational fun play and serious top-level competition.  The problem being that, until 20 years ago, curling was played to a very small degree at a level where proper rule enforcement was mandatory, I always compare it to sandlot baseball versus the major leagues.  In sandlot, the players themselves can determine the strikes and balls as well as outs at home plate but in the major leagues or simple organized play at least one umpire is required. Fact is when something is on the line it is putting too much pressure on the players to leave all rule enforcement totally in their hands.  Also, what so often happens in this situation is the strong-willed and often better team or player is able to use gamesmanship to their advantage, sometimes even unknowingly. My point with rules is this. If a rule is written for any sport then it must be there for a reason and, as a result, should be enforced or removed.  Otherwise that rule becomes simply a guideline that some people will follow while others may not and consequently one team or player will gain an advantage over another. Is that fair or is the playing surface level?  In simple words, no and no! Some curlers at the top level pride themselves in claiming they can govern themselves without the use of officials because they can agree on how to deal with infractions.  Is this a level playing field?  I don’t think so. Is a situation fair in which a number of the better players get together and virtually agree to ignore certain rules?  I think not.  Yet, this is happening every day in curling. For years curlers have grumbled about the hogline rule.  The grumbling has centred around a perceived non-necessity of the rule.  Most lines in sports are there for specific reasons and the hogline is little different.  For the game of curling to be considered a skill there must be a point where the stone has to be released.  The closer a player slides to the distant end before release the less skill there is involved in the sport.  In essence the game becomes sliding rather than curling.  Yet, for years, except at the CCA and WCF levels of play, curlers continually ignore the hogline rule without any repercussion. Most think this is okay but can you imagine a tennis game where anything close to the baseline is considered in, a hockey game where only offsides three feet or more are called, a golf game where playing a ball out of bounds is okay unless it is out by three or more feet? Most of the rules in curling are written so that there is no opportunity for an offending team to receive an advantage by a violation.  For example, the hogline rule suggests that if a player slides over the line all stones should be allowed to complete their course and then the opposing team has the option to determine whether or not to leave the stones as they lie or to remove the delivered stone and place everything back to its original position. Incorrectly, many of today’s players interpret this option to mean they are good sports if they ignore the hogline violation and allow everything to stand.  They also consider the person a bad sport or someone who doesn’t abide by the ethics of the game if he/she calls the hogline violation and suggests to the opponent that the stone or stones should be removed from play. Now isn’t this ridiculous? In a major cashspiel this past autumn, the lead on Team A slightly burned a running stone as it was entering the rings.  Correctly, the lead on Team A told the the skip of Team B that he had touched the stone with his brush as it was entering the rings.  This was the correct move.  What followed was not. The skip of Team B asked that the stone be removed. The violating Team A members became offended and although they removed the stone did so unwilling. The rules state the offending team should have said, “we touched the stone and assume it is of no advantage to you if the rock remains so we will remove it”.  That would have been the proper thing to do and a good example of curling sportsmanship. A number of teams seem to have developed a ‘rule among thieves” that suggests if you have not altered the course of the stone then it should be left in play.  While this might seem reasonable the question remains — how much, is too much and when and who is going to determine this? Again, compare this reaction to the rules of another sport. Can you imagine Tiger Woods, lining up a three-foot putt to win a major tournament, touching the ball with his putter and moving it a fraction and his opponent saying, “that’s okay Tiger, you didn’t intend to do that and it had no impact on the shot.”?  Not likely! Curling is trying hard to earn a position in the major sport mosaic of Canada and in many countries around the world.  It is now an Olympic sport, but does anyone think that games at the Olympic level would take place without rules officials? Does anyone think Olympic competitors would be allowed to develop some sort of code of ethics among themselves where the sport’s rules are concerned? Rules and enforcement and abidance of those rules give sport credibility.  If curling has rules that are not required and that no one feels should be respected then those rules should be removed from the sport.  Otherwise those rules must be honoured by the competitors and enforced by properly-appointed game officials.