When it comes to breaking sports' bad and outdated rules, who's right? - NBC Sports

When it comes to breaking sports' bad and outdated rules, who's right?
Harper, Manziel in grey areas after running afoul of written, unwritten traditions
August 7, 2013, 4:00 pm

WASHINGTON -- In the end, this is about the clash of old and new -- and it should get us to Bryce Harper, Johnny Manziel, the hypocrisy of the NCAA and rules/conventions that don’t really fit the times. Let’s start with Harper.

Tuesday night, in the third inning of the Washington-Atlanta game, Bryce Harper blasted a monstrous home run to center field off Julio Teheran. I happened to be wandering the ballpark at the time, so I was close to the field -- I watched as Harper crushed the home run, admired it for a second, kind of walked and flipped his bat. I wouldn’t say it was at the highest level of hitter showboating. It was probably no more than a 6 or 7 on a scale of 10. Still, it definitely registered.

I turned to the guy next to me and said, “Harper will get plunked before the night’s out.”

He did. His next time up, in fact. Teheran threw what old-time pitchers would call a professional HBP -- fastball, hard, right into the upper thigh. There was a little squawking, benches cleared, guys ran in from the bullpens, more squawking, the umpires warned both benches, and the game went on. The Nationals did not take advantage of the moment and lost 2-1 -- it’s been that kind of year in Washington.

But I didn’t really think anything more about it until I saw tweets from MLB Network and NBC Radio’s Brian Kenny, one of the smart guys in the business, who was basically outraged that in 2013 pitchers are allowed to just THROW BASEBALLS AT PLAYERS in retaliation for admiring a home run. And he’s right. A baseball thrown at 90-plus mph is a weapon, it is dangerous, it can end a career, it can change a life. It should not just be an accepted retaliation for a guy strutting a bit too proudly after a long home run -- that’s ridiculous.

And yet, Harper knew the precepts of the game. He acknowledged it afterward. “If I walk off on somebody and, you know, he wants to drill me, let him drill me, and I’ll stand on say on first base and say some choice words and, you know, get over it.”

So what’s right here? On the one hand, the idea of pitchers just throwing at players to prove a point feels impossibly outdated and wrong. It feels very 1950s, when players had off-season jobs and the Dodgers and Giants shared a city and St. Louis was considered “West.” Bryce Harper is a brilliant young baseball player worth hundreds of millions of dollars. It does not seem like 2013 justice to have a bat flip punished by a rock-hard ball thrown at you.

On the other hand -- Harper knew exactly what he was doing. Someone named Ryan tweeted to me: “Don’t like bat flips? Don’t give up 420-foot home runs.” Which is fair enough, but you could counter with “Don’t like getting drilled in the leg with a fastball? Don’t flip your bat.” Harper knew he would get drilled, and he walked off his homer anyway.

Which takes us to Johnny Manziel. As you know, the NCAA is investigating an ESPN Outside The Lines report that Manziel accepted several thousand dollars to sign autographs.

Charles Barkley joins The Dan Patrick Show to talk about the Johnny Manziel scandal. His thoughts on paying college athletes? 'We can't pay them all.'

On On the one hand, there’s the obvious and sickening hypocrisy of the NCAA and the growing disdain surrounding amateurism in big-time college football. ESPN’s Jay Bilas made the NCAA point as well as anyone could by going to ShopNCAAsports.com, typing in “Manziel” and having a bunch of Texas A&M No. 2 jerseys come up.* Nothing more really needs to be said there.

*You can’t do it now -- the NCAA, in what has become typical of their direction, quietly took down the search engine when no one was watching (though No. 2 jerseys are still available).

As far as amateurism goes, how can you not allow Johnny Manziel -- who won the Heisman Trophy and was a national sensation -- to earn money from his successes? It feels fundamentally wrong. It feels like the Olympic committee stripping Jim Thorpe’s medals because he played a little professional baseball. The overriding question of compensating college athletes is a huge and complicated one and I must admit that my own thoughts on it evolve all the time. But when you reduce it to something like this -- Manziel making some money from the fame he earned with his great play -- it does not feel big or complicated. This is still America, right?

And … on the other hand: Manziel knew the rules. They might be terrible and outdated rules, but he knew them. There was no confusion here, no gray area where misunderstandings might happen. If Manziel actually took money for signing autographs, he KNEW that getting caught would lead to a scandal and special reports and it could endanger his college career.

So which side do you fall on? The side of the bad rule/convention or the side of the person who knowingly breaks it? It’s a tough one. I do think about an Abraham Lincoln quote, one that definitely seems to be playing out now. Lincoln said: “The best way to get a bad law repealed is to enforce it strictly.”

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski