Professional Sports evolve rapidly, and so it follows that the rules change and evolve as well, to optimise the spectacle, remove ambiguity and level the competition.
Like, this year in NRL-land there’s new rules about scrum positions, tackling mid-air, what happens when the ball scones a ref, a general-play “challenge” system, an inversion of the 40/20 kick, and new limits to how long a trainer can spend on field – a rule that’ll cause sadness and confusion for one Alfie Langer come Origin.
Even the genteel sport of Golf – Scottish bastards have been whacking the white ball since the 15th century, so you’d think they’d have it sorted by now, but no. You don’t want to know the extent of the rule fuckerage that’s gone down in the space of a single year. Seriously, you don’t.
Anyway, there’s a fascinating subset of rule-changery in sports leagues, however, and that’s when rules are amended as result of a single athlete’s influence.
A single athlete who will, literally – all on their own – Change The Game.
If you’re into your hoops, you can thank Leroy Edwards for the Three-Second Rule (where you can’t camp under the ring for longer than three secs). His pre-eminence in the key necessitated that one back in 1936.
In ’67, dunking was banned for a decade to neutralise Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s dominance, (We like to think this somehow facilitated his foray into acting – co-pilot in seminal 1980 movie Flying High – a Swellnet-certified five-star classic.)
Boxing bouts were changed from 15 rounds to 12 after Ray Mancini killed his opponent; they changed the layout of ice-hockey goalsquares ‘cos goalie Marty Brodeur was too pucken clever by half; baseball mounds were lowered to neuter a ballslinger named Gibbo.
And there’s a rogue’s gallery of the less-than-glorious gamechangers.
Through the 2004 NFL season, Roy Williams had injured so many opponents by yanking the inside of their shoulder pads as they streaked by him, the “horse-collar tackle” was outlawed by next season. Ice hockey has 'The Avery Rule' – which we won’t go into ‘cos we haven’t gotten up to the surfing bit yet – but needless to say Sean Avery was an ornery one, even by ice hockey’s standards.
All of which brings us to chapter 11, verse 17a in the Woz’s 111-page 2020 rulebook – updated March 1st and uploaded to Woz.com on the weekend.
Remember the Round of 16 at Pipeline a few short months ago? Gabs versus Kayo Ibelli? Sure you do. With less than a minute on the clock, and without priority, The Dark Lord performed that deliberate interference that had commentators rhapsodising about his otherworldy powers of mental arithmetic and the commentariat clamouring in condemnation – how dare Gabs use tactics in the sacred ocean where the dolphins and the mermaids roam, etc.
Swellnet ed Stu called it a month ago, and told your Ding Alley correspondent to keep an eye out for the new rulebook – “I’m so adamant they’ll modify a rule around Gabby and that incident that if it doesn’t change I’ll wear facepaint and sing 'Stand and Deliver' at the top of my lungs.”
Fortunately for Stuart Leslie Goddard’s* fine legacy, we’re spared Stu’s stepping up to the mic any time soon.
Here’s rule 11.17a (note the important change is after the first sentence):
For priority situations when an interference is called on a Surfer, then the interfering Surfer’s second highest Ride score will tally as a zero. Notwithstanding the foregoing, if there is an interference (e.g., by dropping in, paddling, blocking) that prevents a Surfer from performing on a potential scoring Ride (i.e., a Ride that the Judges determine could have resulted in one or the Surfer’s two highest scoring Rides) in the final five (5) minutes of a heat, the value of the interfering Surfer’s highest scoring wave will tally as a zero. If a majority of the Judges determine that the interference during the final five (5) minutes was intentional, the interfering Surfer will be disqualified and lose the heat.
It’s pretty clear this rule change (with the highest scoring ride zeroed, disqualification etc) is aimed at anyone looking to employ the same at-the-death tactics Gabby (brilliantly or blatantly, your call) used at Pipe.
And as Stu also reminded your correspondent, “Keep in mind it's not the first time they've had to rewrite rules to curb Gabby's insatiable competitive drive. Few years back they had to redraft the blocking rule after he had run ins with Bede at Bells, Slater at Pipe, and others too who I can’t recall right now.”
This lives as rule 11.13, where, to paraphrase: The Priority Surfer loses priority if they paddle or position themselves in front of the non-Priority Surfer to deliberately impede them from catching a wave, or block an opponent by catching a wave with no intention to score, (in which case it doesn’t matter who’s back out in the take off spot first).
So as well as two World Titles and all those event victories, our Gabs can also add a couple of rule rewrites to his legacy. And good on him.
People write Gabs off because his extreme competitive instincts run counter to our own ideal associations of surfing, but shit, if you enjoy watching amazing surfing, then professional surfing provides this, and old mate pushes the whole show forward – from performance to regulatory minutiae – more than pretty much anyone.
And for those who imagine that somehow he lacks appreciation, or that the nuanced gifts of surfing are lost on him, it probably helps to call to mind how deep and rich Gab’s bank of tube vision memories runs.
(And though it’s tempting, given the wellspring of Catholicism that propels the Brazillian push, to make a comment about the whole “inappropriate interference” thing, we should probably refrain.)
Gabs is neither Roy Williams scoundrel nor Kareem Abdul-Jabbar savant, but someone for whom victory is so crushingly important. That’s his gift and his burden. And no matter what we bang on about with our keyboards and screens, it’s unlikely he gives the judgement of us punters too much thought.
But sometime this year, with the jersey on and with a few minutes on the clock, there’ll be a situation, a set approaching, old boy Chuckles will be on the beach looking like someone’s just skinned and eaten his cat, there’ll be an opponent needing or defending a score, there’ll be that 111-page rulebook – updated 1st March – sitting on the WSL site, there’ll be a panel of judges, there’ll be Gabby, calculating exactly how hard he can push within the restraints, and there’ll be the rest of us – intrigued, curious, triggered, and nothing if not entertained.
// DING ALLEY
Ding Alley is two mates, writer Gra Murdoch and cartoonist @maccatoons – who made their media debut inserting ‘Good Weekend’ supplements into Melbourne’s friday Age newspaper, the 11.00pm to 4.00am shift, alongside fellow drunks and ne’er do wells.