Is it cheating to violate unwritten rules?

My brother-in-law Joe sent me this one. Pulaski Academy is a high school in Arkansas that punches above its weight when it comes to football. Part of the secret of their success is their unconventional game play. Here’s an example. On September 9th, the Pulaski Bruins played the Cabot Panthers. They scored on their first drive, then did an onside kick, which they recovered. Then they scored and did an onside kick, which they recovered. Then they scored and did an onside kick, which they recovered. This continued until they were leading 29-0. With 8:35 left in the first quarter, the Cabot Panthers had yet to touch the ball. Here’s what the Pulaski Academy sports writers had to say about it. But Kevin Kelley, the coach of this Arkansas high school team, is becoming something of a national figure. Read what they have to say about him over at Sports Illustrated: Pulaski Academy scores 29 points before opponent touches football. Be sure and watch some of the videos.

Our lives are bounded and channeled by rules, habits, and laws. We think of these as explicit, but unwritten rules and cultural norms vastly outweigh any documented guidelines. These tacit, silent agreements among total strangers guide our behavior to a remarkable degree. Eccentrics, the ones who refuse to do what everything else is doing, often get treated as law-breaking miscreants.

I was reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent New Yorker article, How underdogs can win. Much of his article is about how an unlikely girls’ basketball team wins by flouting convention. Successfully upending conventional wisdom is disconcerting in the same way that an earthquake is disconcerting. Something people had counted on as bedrock is suddenly demonstrably unstable. The typical result: rewrite the rules, codify the convention, and cast out the eccentric. The long term health of any system is often indicated by the degree to which it tolerates eccentrics. I find it encouraging that football observers find Kevin Kelley so inspiring.

2 thoughts on “Is it cheating to violate unwritten rules?”

  1. You neatly summed it up by saying “The long term health of any system is often indicated by the degree to which it tolerates eccentrics.” As the saying goes, the first one out of the gates, trying to disprove conventional wisdom, is bloodied the most. Majority of humanity (to a certain degree, yours truly) cannot comprehend anything outside the realm of regularity. Be it dribbling in soccer, putting together a team based off of statistics or doing away with Floppy Disk drives in day to day computing.

  2. Wow, that Candid Camera clip was great! I hadn’t heard of onside kicks until a few days ago, when The Patriots failed one against… someone from PA (I don’t really find sports interesting, but my dad was watching the game).

    Your explanation makes a lot of sense, and goes a long way in explaining the current interactions between the fervently religious and the anti-theists (such as myself)—they often react to the most innocent of questions as if an earthquake had struck their brain.

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