Thursday, April 21, 2011

What Am I Talking About?, Part 2: Natural and Positive Law

Ask any attorney where the law comes from and that lawyer will tell you that we use both natural law and positive law to create our society’s rules. Sports are no different in this regard, and often are more dynamic even from a Naturalist stance. So now that we know what the sources are called, what do these terms mean and how do they apply to sports?

Natural law is law that comes from some external pressure guiding the situation. No matter whether you believe that outside source is a higher power, a cosmic force, or simply common sense, natural laws are ones that exist simply because without them our society would not be worth being a part of. These are laws prohibiting things like theft and murder, as well as more dynamic things like some environmental laws.

Similarly, natural laws for sports are rules that promote safety. These are rules like those requiring helmets or pads in sports where a person is likely to get hurt. They can also include dynamic rule changes that do not affect the overall competitive balance of the game, like the NFL’s various bans on certain dangerous moves, like horse-collar tackles, blindside blocks to the head, and the head slap.

Positive law, on the other hand, is law that comes from an internal societal force. The purpose of a positive law is generally to promote the society’s overall values among its members. Zoning laws, which do not derive from any natural source, but promote what a city believes is the best possible layout from an economic and public safety standpoint, are positive laws.

For sports, positive laws are those that promote fairness, rather than safety. Positive laws can fundamentally change some aspect of the game, like the introduction of instant replay, but don’t necessarily have to as long as the purpose is to level the playing field, like rules banning techniques considered unfair as opposed to dangerous. An unfair technique that was banned would be the use of tearaway jerseys by football players to thwart tacklers.

Now that we have an understanding of what natural and positive laws are, tomorrow I will show you how competitive rules of a game are analogous to the laws enacted by a government.


  1. some (many) would argue that zoning laws aren't always positive

    nice part deux...looking forward to part three

  2. Wouldn't natural law analogues be those rules that serve to make the playing of the game possible, rather than merely safe? Many safety rules are arbitrary; you can play tackle football without helmets or pads, for example. It's called "rugby." But eye-gouging or hair-pulling or simply punching people on the gridiron, those are all actions that would be deemed illegal and punished by most football players even if there were no formal rules. You simply cannot play the game if those actions are permitted. Thus, they can be considered "natural rules." Things that would be punished even if they're not specified in the rules.

    Reminiscent of the many apologias for Barry Bonds arguing that the particular performance-enhancing drugs he was using weren't specifically banned by baseball's rules at the time. But they didn't have to be, because the use of those drugs for that purpose was a felony under federal criminal law. The natural rules of any sport bar actions that violate the criminal law of the land, unless there is a specific positive rule that permits the action (as is the case in boxing, most of which would otherwise consist of simple or aggravated assault).

  3. I'd still say that the pad requirement came about as a natural outgrowth of the desire for safety rather than the less natural desire to make the game more fair. But you're definitely right about things that are patently unsportsmanlike being natural rules.

    I would place bans on performance enhancing drugs in a positive spot, since placing a restriction on a player's ability to improve his performance is not a rule that one would come to naturally.

  4. hey joe,

    just an aethestics comment -- can you choose a different font for the comments? those "s"'s remind me of the font used during the revolutionary war...and they're not particularly easy to read -- looks more like the "subsection" icon than an "s"


  5. It's a smaller size of my text font, but I can see how it could be a problem. I'll see if I can change the comments font or make it bigger.