Each of North America’s most popular sports has a list of written and unwritten rules. Some rules related to the integrity of the game don’t need repeating on paper or verbally, like stopping play when someone has been injured or shaking hands after a playoff match.
Other unwritten rules a bit more specific, like only heavyweights going fisticuffs with each other in the NHL or avoiding base steals when ahead by a large margin in the MLB. Meanwhile, many of the NFL’s written list of rules fall by the wayside to keep the game moving, including two-point conversions and playing for overtime in a preseason game. In fact, memorizing the league’s official rules is only the first step to being able to interpret them.
As the most popular and lucrative league in the US, fans and pundits are always on the lookout for a slipup that could cost a game. Historically, leagues and teams were subject to major scrutiny from analysts who help create NFL betting odds for the regular season and playoffs. The focus was on the game and hard stats, but today, fans want more than live data points and injury records.
They also want to know what it’s like to be an athlete competing in a stadium with thousands of cheering fans. The truth is that there are plenty of nuances to succeeding in the NFL and other major leagues, but athletes first need to memorize the official and unofficial rules. Let’s take a look at some of the craziest rules in North America’s major leagues.
Unwritten Rules: Rookies Step Lightly
This rule spans leagues like the NFL, MLB, NHL, NBA, and MLS: respect the vets and put in your time as a rookie—on and off the field. Each league has its own unofficial rules for rookies, including who buys breakfast and who sits where when it’s time to board a bus or plane.
In general, veteran players get preferential treatment. During practice, rookies have to outperform senior talents through grit alone—getting physical with a vet in sports like football, hockey, or basketball won’t earn rookies any favor.
In general, the unwritten rule for rookies in their first year is to keep quiet and observe. Those who ask questions and apply what they’ve learned from veterans will earn respect faster. However, the ultimate job for a rookie is to meaningfully contribute to a team’s victory on the court, field, or rink.
Unwritten: Hush Money
The major leagues all feature lengthy rosters, which means the pay gap between star players and backups can reach millions. Rookies coming off prestigious NCAA or minor league runs often see disproportionate salaries compared to tested veterans who deliver on a single specialty—and no one needs to hear about it.
In the major leagues, no one talks about their contracts and salaries in the locker room. Not only does this prevent inter-team disputes or tension, but it’s also about respect. Regardless of salary, athletes and staff put in the same long hours and heartfelt passion to elevate their team’s performance.
Written Rules: Shatter Dunks Don’t Count (NBA)
Though the unwritten rules in the major leagues are the most intriguing for fans eager to see behind the curtain, most major leagues still have archaic and official rules in their manuals. Though not all of them would hold up if challenged, the NBA has one serious rule that may shock fans: players aren’t awarded points if they shatter the backboard while scoring.
Though the list of strange NBA rules covers a variety of other topics, shattering backboards stands out because it’s sometimes involuntary. Shaq, for example, broke over ten backboards during his NBA career accidentally. In 1993, the NBA invented a Shaq-proof basket.
Written: No Fraternizing with the Enemy (MLB)
According to the MLB manual, uniformed players aren’t allowed to fraternize with their opponents. The rule is delightfully vague—does it cover mascots? Home team fans? Luckily, players don’t follow the rule.
In fact, on-base interactions are a treasured aspect of the game for fans and players alike. Over the course of MLB history, on-base interactions have sparked brawls and chit-chat alike. There’s the famous 2010 brawl incited between Cardinal Yadier Molina and Reds player Brandon Phillips. Then there are the funnier moments, like Blue Jay Orlando Hudson whispering to first basemen, “I’m going to steal,” with no intention of doing so.