Muted Rules


What are unwritten rules and why are they so important?

Unwritten rules (synonyms: Unspoken rules) are behavioural constraints that are not voiced or written down and often imposed in organisations or societies. 

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Unwritten or unspoken rules play a huge part in sports. With any sport, you will definitely be able to collate a list of such rules that inexplicably promote sportsmanship, fair play, and etiquette. These unwritten rules hold such great importance that it has become almost common practice for leagues to penalise athletes for breaking these rules even though they are not printed in black-and-white. With every unwritten rule broken, the Internet goes into a frenzy with divided opinions on the athletes. But what are some examples of these rules in the world of sports?


First of all, there is soccer, or football. Whatever you want to call it. The unwritten rules promoting sportsmanship are numerous in this sport, as in all sports. For example, if a player picks up an injury during the match and collapses on the pitch, the opposition should kick the ball out of bounds, allowing the medical team to treat the athlete. 

And when play eventually continues, the team with the injured player should give the possession of the ball to the opposition as a sign of sportsmanship and courtesy. The emphasis is on the word “should”. Neither team is actually inclined to follow these unwritten rules. 

There have been multiple instances of players collapsing on the pitch, yet the opposition teams have opted to continue playing and many of these teams have scored a goal resulting from their advantageous situation on the pitch. Many critics claim that the controversy that occurs after a team breaks these unwritten rules is exciting since it is unclear if the blame should be placed on the team.


Another example is in baseball. If you are a baseball fan, you would know the 3-0 unwritten rule. This rule applies when the game is already out of reach and the losing team has already “waved the white flag”. The rule then states that the winning team should not take a swing at the ball for the remaining time of the match.

However, this unwritten rule was broken on 18 August 2020, during a match involving a baseball player named Fernando Tatis Jr. Although the game was already out of reach, he continued to hit the ball and obtained a grand slam, which is considered a huge achievement in baseball. Social media erupted over the controversial play. He even faced subtle criticism from his manager, who said in an interview, “He’s young, a free spirit and focused and all those things… It’s a learning opportunity and that’s it and he’ll grow from it.” Even after Tatis apologised, the debate on the issue went on for weeks.

To put things simply, many people got mad at him for just hitting a ball and doing his job.

When all is said and done, would Tatis’s grand slam be disregarded because the opposing team’s throw was not of the highest quality? Should Tatis not have taken advantage of the situation to avoid hurting his opponents’ feelings? 


In the NBA (National Basketball Association), things are not much different. There is an unwritten rule that if the game is already out of reach, and time is almost up, players should dribble out the clock and not put up a shot. But what exactly is at stake if the players just play all the way to the end and have fun? The basketball players could score a few more points with just one bucket. 

But it is an unwritten rule that one should not take a cheap shot at the opponents when they are down. And that is exactly what happened on 28th October 2021. In a match between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Lakers were leading by 26 points at half-time. However, with four seconds left in the game, the Thunder were 5 points up and the Lakers had little hope of winning. 

With four seconds left, Thunder player Darius Bazley stole the ball from the Lakers, ran straight to the hoop and apathetically dunked the ball, adding insult to injury. The Lakers’ Russell Westbrook was far from happy and chased Bazley with fury, causing a fight between the players. The referees broke up the spat and ejected Westbrook from the game. 

In the post-match conference, Westbrook said, “How I play the game, I’m more old school. When [things] like that happen, I don’t let it slide. In the game of basketball, there’s certain things you just don’t do. The game was already over, and I didn’t like it. Simple as that.” [sic]

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Bazley’s teammate, told the media, “I know Baze, he didn’t mean no disrespect by it. It just happened, heat of the moment. I know Bazley[‘s] character, he didn’t mean no disrespect. If it’s right or wrong, I don’t know.”  

Twitter went into a frenzy, divided with opinions. On one hand, Westbrook had a point about respecting the opponent, and breaking such unwritten rules is a sign of poor sportsmanship by Bazley. On the other hand, was Bazley in the wrong for breaking a rule that hasn’t been inscribed in black-and-white and scoring an extra two points?


Unwritten rules have become so recognised that they aren’t really unwritten anymore. There are also unwritten rules that don’t affect the outcome of the game but are obeyed just out of mutual respect for both parties. In tennis, if the ball hits the net, rolls over and out of the opponent’s reach, the player apologises as it is a “lucky shot”. Coming back to soccer/football, there is also a rule that should a player score against his former team, he should not celebrate excessively (unless you’re Manchester City’s Adebayor who ran the full length of the pitch to celebrate against his former team, Arsenal). 


There are always two sides to any story and it is especially true in this situation. While there are unwritten rules that have a very strong argument for being pointless and redundant, we can also see how these unwritten rules are crucial for maintaining the harmonious and smooth flow of the match. People love the chaos that ensues whenever one of these rules are broken but it is understandable why players may feel disrespected in such situations.

With the upcoming NSG competitions or any sports event you spectate, try to spot unwritten rules subconsciously enacted by the athletes.

After all, having good fun and sportsmanship is what sports are all about.


  • Ethan Lim

    My passions are writing. I actively follow a wide variety of sports and especially love playing tennis.