(Very) Remedial Sports Lessons
November 29, 2008 2:39 PM   Subscribe

Teach me about sports like I'm six. Specifically, American football and basketball. Or, where can I learn the basics?

So I'm a male in his 20's. I was never much interested in sports as a kid, so, much to my dad's frustration, I never paid it much attention. I get baseball, but I don't grasp anything but the very basics of other sports. And now all of my peers talk about it day in and day out, and I respond, "Oh, it's football season?" I never found watching other people throw a ball around a field that interesting, and certainly don't wish to start playing these sports, but I'd like to achieve the same level of understanding of the sports as, as, say, my grandma.

In football, you want to get a ball into the other team's endzone. There are bonus kicks where you try to get the ball through the fork. That's about my knowledge. I'm not sure what lines of scrimmage are, or what all the numbers ("their own first and ten!") mean. Players have all sorts of different names, like wide receivers or tight-ends, but I just see a bunch of guys running around.

I'm also tall, so everyone assumes I'm big into basketball. I get that you have to dribble the ball, and that you want to get it into one of the baskets. (But not the other one! I learned that one in gym class the hard way.)

That pretty much sums up my knowledge of the two sports. I'm not sure how points are awarded in either case, nor do I have a clue about the finer points of either.

The problem is that this isn't something I can find easily online. There aren't really that many good primers to the sports, and the Wikipedia and HowStuffWorks pages seem more interested in discussing the exact composition of a football, and the history of their manufacture, than on how the sport is played. I've tried just watching, but when you have no clue what's going on, it's not that helpful.

I get the very, very basics, but if you pretend that I've just come to America from some obscure country, or that I'm five, what would you explain to me about the sport as I sat next to you watching a bunch of people throw a "an inflated, polyurethane bladder placed in cowhide covering and laced with gridcord material" [link] around the field? Remember, I'm totally clueless. In lieu of writing an epic novel attempting to explain sports, are there any good sites that cover these sports for an utter beginner? Remember, I don't want to play, or even become a big fan, but I'm sick of being embarrassed by how much more my grandmother knows about the sports than I do.
posted by fogster to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (25 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Watch youtube videos, search for odd / weird plays and rules; probably good to learn visually.
posted by querty at 3:00 PM on November 29, 2008

Best answer: Football:

Each team gets 4 downs (tries) to move the ball 10 yards. If the team successfully moves the ball 10 yards, then the cycle starts again on first down. A touchdown, getting the ball in the other team's endzone, is worth 6 points, and after every touchdown there is an "extra point" or (PAT for Point After Try) kick worth one point. If a team gets close enough for a field goal, then can try to kick it through the uprights (the fork) for 3 points.

There are 11 men on offense and defense on every play. The quarterback is the field general. He is the one who throws the ball or hands it off to the running back. The Offensive Line are the 5 players whose job it is to prevent the defense from tackling or sacking the quarterback. The offensive line can be broken down into 3 positions. From left to right on the field they are the Left Tackle, the Left Guard, the Center, the Right Guard and the Right Tackle. Depending on the formation there are sometimes tight ends, who can either block like an offensive lineman or catch like a receiver.

If the quarterback is throwing the ball, it will typically be caught by a wide reciever (usually taller thinner players). If it is a running play, the quarterback will give the ball to the running back who will try to run forward in order to gain yardage. All defensive players have specific assignemnts in order to try and prevent the offense from scoring a touchdown or a field goal.

The game is much more complicated than this, but those are the absolute basics of moving the ball and scoring.
posted by DrDreidel at 3:02 PM on November 29, 2008 [7 favorites]

As someone who's recently learned enough about rugby to get by (in the space of about two weeks), I totally recommend just sitting and watching a game or three with someone who can explain to you what's going on. (This someone is NOT the announcers, by the way.) That, plus hunting through Wikipedia to grasp some of the finer points did me well.

(Then again, I instantly fell in love with rugby and have developed a passion for it, so I've got a bit more impetus, it sounds like.)
posted by kalimac at 3:13 PM on November 29, 2008

Basketball, hockey and soccer are all essentially the same game. Each team has a recepticle in which they want to get the ball/puck/ball into. The other team tries to block the other team from getting the ball/puck/ball into the recepticle. Because of this, the team "B" is on "defense" when on the side of the court/field of team "A"'s recepticle and team "B" is on "offense" when on the side of the court/field of team "B"'s recepticle.
These sports consist of both teams chasing after the 1 ball/puck/ball and trading off on offense and defense.

Note, I am not at all qualified in anything sports-related, this is truly what I learned about these 3 sports in elementary school.
posted by k8t at 3:14 PM on November 29, 2008

DrDreidel, any way that you can make your explanation simpler? I understood until you got to the field goal stuff. What is a field goal? What is tackling and sacking? I didn't get anything about an offensive line.

And yes, I grew up in America.
posted by k8t at 3:17 PM on November 29, 2008

This is not an attempt at a derail, but you can't really learn about sports from reading. If you just learn facts and figures from a book, it's going to be totally pointless and you'll just forget everything in a week.

You need to pick a sport and watch it regularly. At first it'll be confusing, but you'll soon pick it up.
posted by afx237vi at 3:18 PM on November 29, 2008

Best answer: If you just want to know enough about sports to talk about it (a great reason, by the way, since it is so much of the common coin of male conversation), just read the sports pages and get a feel for some of the personalities, the gossip, the controversies. You don't need to know anything about basketball to know that Le Bron James will be free to change teams next year, and that the New York Knicks hope to sign him. When the conversation turns to how bad the Knicks are, just say, "Yeah, but with Le Bron, whoa! That would be a different story, huh?" And you've made your contribution. Or go to realclearsports.com, which includes a lot on controversies and personalities. Or listen to sports radio. Just as you don't need to see the movies and tv shows stars appear on to know and enjoy Hollywood gossip, you don't really have to know about sports to make sports talk. It's still all personalities.
posted by Faze at 3:24 PM on November 29, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The BBC explains (American) football. And basketball too.
posted by ALongDecember at 3:28 PM on November 29, 2008

For football, I would highly recommend Ralph Hickok's The Pro Football Fan's Companion and John Madden's One Knee Equals Two Feet. Both are available dirt-cheap used, or, very probably, at your local library (if you like video games, I can also recommend EA's John Madden series as a good way to learn more about the sport).
posted by box at 3:44 PM on November 29, 2008

In spite of what you said, Wikipedia seems pretty helpful to me.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 3:46 PM on November 29, 2008

I didn't understand football at all until I bought Basic Football (hosted by Burt Reynolds) from a dollar store. Bonus: it's hilarious.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:03 PM on November 29, 2008

Best answer: The stupidly-titled Football for Girls might help.
posted by MsMolly at 4:21 PM on November 29, 2008

I'm not a huge sports fan, but I've found it helpful to pick one sport and really own it to the point you sacrifice knowledge or interest in any other sports.

For me, it's college basketball. I'd like to think I know more about it than the average Joe, and whenever the topic of some other sport comes up, I can be kind of smug about it like "Oh, the NFL? What's going on with that? I don't know anything about it because college basketball is the best sport there is."

I'd like to think that when you flaunt some sort of preference like this, it bumps you up a couple notches in the sports hierarchy, but who knows...
posted by cusack at 4:23 PM on November 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: With the exception of baseball, which I've always loved watching, everything I know about sports I learned from video games.

I'm serious. Video games are all about learning how systems work and then manipulating them. Since you don't need to know all the rules when you start, you can just right in and spend time "doing" things yourself. You'll learn better that way than by passively taking in the information (e.g., by reading about sports rules online). I understand the offsides rule in soccer better than some of my soccer-watching friends because of video games.

One caveat: modern sports video games are often incredibly complicated. I'd recommend playing a nice Sega Genesis game, if you can. (If you're interested in this approach, I can provide more detailed information.)
posted by danb at 4:49 PM on November 29, 2008

Best answer: If you're into video games at all, rent or buy a copy of Madden and/or NBA Live to figure it out real quick.

I learned how football works at the age of 14 by playing Madden. By the end of a couple seasons (in game) of playing, I knew more about how the game was played and its rules than most of my friends that played for our middle school's team.

I'm sure the same would apply to basketball.

Sounds silly, but trust me--it works.
posted by Precision at 4:51 PM on November 29, 2008

Wow, danb beat me. Way to go ):
posted by Precision at 4:51 PM on November 29, 2008

Best answer: k8t: tackling is when you make the guy with the ball fall down, either by running into him at high speed and knocking him over, tripping him, wrapping your arms around him and falling over (thus pulling him down with you), or some combination of the above. If an opposing player has the ball you can essentially do anything you want to knock him down short of pulling on his facemask or horse-collaring him. A sack is just when the quarterback gets tackled while he has the ball behind where the ball started the play.

This is a little bit of a simplification since, technically, you can tackle a guy without making him fall down. Play stops when the balls forward motion is stopped. This usually but does not always involve knocking or pulling the other player to the ground. You can also push the other player out of bounds. Or sometimes his forward progress is stopped without him falling down, as when a big pile of guys all end up pushing on eachother at the same time and balance eachother out. The guy with the ball doesn't necessarily fall down but everyone stops moving forward so the play stops.

But, in general, a tackle is just smashing the other guy to the ground or tripping him or whatever.
posted by Justinian at 5:30 PM on November 29, 2008

Best answer: In my opinion the key to appreciating a sport is understanding its complexity. In football, yes the point is scoring touchdowns and field goals, but there are few really important meta-games being played.

On every play, the offense has a few broad choices (run, pass, or kick). The offense will line its players up differently depending on what they're going to do: if they plan a long pass, they may have four or five players on the fringes as wide receivers, way on the sides so they can run down the field. The defense will read this and adjust. Likewise there is a standard setup for kicks, with the kicker starting way behind the line of scrimmage to give him room to kick without being tackled; the defense will line up for a kick by placing a receiver way way back to catch the ball, and have people around him to block the kicking team's players as the receiver runs back up the field. Etc. etc.

It is often obvious what the right play is; if it's 4th down, and the offense is too far away to kick a field goal, then they will almost always punt. But often it's not obvious if they will choose to pass or run - and a lot of the fun comes when they are able to fake each other out. The quaterback fakes a pass, then hands off to a runner; by faking he drew a defender's attention away which opened up a hole that the runner ran through. Or, the defense unexpectedly "blitzes" the quaterback -- pulling men away from their normal position (protecting against passes or whatever) and throwing them at the quaterback to try and tackle him -- risky, but high reward. Or even more risky and more exciting -- faking a kick and instead doing a pass. You'll see riskier strategies tried as the game gets more and more desparate for the losing team. Every now and then it pays off and you have a miracle that sports fans will talk about for years to come.
posted by PercussivePaul at 5:34 PM on November 29, 2008

Best answer: Since "line of scrimmage" came up in PercussivePaul's answer, and no one else has defined it, I will attempt to do so. The line of scrimmage is the line across the field that represents where the ball stopped after the last play. The offensive and defensive players arrange themselves on either side of that line when the next play is going to start. The line of scrimmage can move from exactly where the ball went out of play, as a result of a penalty on either side. The sides aren't allowed to cross the line until the play starts. (Of course, as with all of these answers, it's slightly more complicated than that...)
posted by cabingirl at 6:51 PM on November 29, 2008

I would also advise picking one sport, learning a lot about it/following it, and then shrugging off others as not your thing.

If you really want to know enough about several sports that you could carry on a conversation with real sports fans, it's going to be hard and time-consuming. People who really like sports have it as a hobby. Prepare to stop watching a lot of TV shows you like if you watch TV, or to give up a lot of free time. All the sports fans I know, even ones like my parents who mostly just follow NFL, probably spend at least 5 hours per week on sports (my parents probably spend 8 hours per week watching NFL football during the season).

If you went to college, find out what's a strong sports program among football, basketball, and baseball at your alma mater and start following their season, watching their games. Supplement with Sportscenter or something like it to keep up with the rest of the teams, and use one of the methods above to learn about how the game itself "works."
posted by fructose at 7:43 PM on November 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: What is a field goal?

On any down the offensive team can elect to place-kick the ball. The ball is snapped to a holder seven yards behind the line of scrimmage, and then the kicker kicks the ball that the holder is holding (the ball is held perpendicular to the ground with the holder holding it this way with his finger). If the ball goes between the uprights (the yellow goal post ten yards behind the end line) it's three points.

A good kicker can consistently successfully make field goals of 40 yards. Great ones can hit it from 50 or more yards.

The defensive team can try to do two things:
1. Block the kick. If it's blocked, the ball is live -- either team can advance it for a touchdown.
2. Attempt to return the kick if it falls short of the goal. Again, if returned, this would be a touchdown. This is a very rare play (though Devin Hester of the Chicago Bears did it a couple years ago).

An extra point works the same way, although in the NFL the defense cannot do anything but block the kick. In college, though, the defense can return the ball to the opposite end zone for two points. This happens maybe three times a year -- Oklahoma did it tonight against Oklahoma State.

That make sense?
posted by dw at 8:17 PM on November 29, 2008

One more thing: given that you've marked Faze's post above as a best answer, it seems that you may be interested in carrying on sports-related conversations. In that case, I'd recommend watching a sports news show like ESPN's SportsCenter. They tend to be big on personalities, and feature interviews and analysis that you can parrot back (as many of us do) in general conversation.

I think it's more fun if you know the rules, though!
posted by danb at 8:19 PM on November 29, 2008

Best answer: DrDreidel, any way that you can make your explanation simpler? I understood until you got to the field goal stuff. What is a field goal? What is tackling and sacking? I didn't get anything about an offensive line.

And yes, I grew up in America.
posted by k8t at 3:17 PM on November 29 [+] [!]

OK, here's my try at football:

Football is sort of like trench warfare combined with chess. You are fighting the other team for territory, and taking turns.

The side that has the ball is called the offense. The other side, defense. At the beginning of the game, a coin is flipped to decide who gets the ball first. The game is played for a total of 60 minutes- there are various rules for when the clock starts and stops, ignore that for a moment. That time is split into halves of 30 minutes. There are also quarters, but those are irrelevant for this exercise.

At the start of the game, the team who does not get the ball first kicks the ball as far as they can (but inside the field of play)- they are the defense, and they are defending their goal. The other team receives the ball, and they are the offense, and they are trying to score.

The field is 100 yards long, with goal posts and an end zone on either side.

Scoring is done any of three (3.5 really) ways. Carry or catch the ball into the opponents end zone gets you 6 points- this is a touchdown. Kick the ball through the goal post (or "uprights") gets you three- field goal. If you tackle an opponent in his own end zone, this is called a safety and you get two. After scoring a touchdown, the offense has a one-time shot to score extra points- kick the ball through the uprights and you get an extra point. Or if you want, you can opt to "go for two" and you try to run or throw the ball into the end zone again. This is harder, so it's worth 2.

After scoring, you kick the ball as far as you can away from your own end zone. Now you are the defense and they are the offense.

So the offense catches the ball and tries to run it back to you. You, the defense, try to stop the person by tackling him. Once you tackle him, wherever he goes down becomes the first "line of scrimmage". Along the sidelines, you'll see two guys with funny looking flag things. These are ten yards apart. The offense has 4 "downs" or attempts, to either score, or at least get the ball past that ten yard marker. (on television, this point is the yellow line) The football is on this line of scrimmage. Both sides line some of their players up right on the line- these are linesmen (where your offensive line comes from, and also the defensive line). The offensive line's job is to keep the defense away from the guy(s) with the ball and to create gaps (holes) where the people with the ball can run through. The defensive line's job is to get past these people and tackle the guy with the ball. Or even take the ball from him. The other guys, the ones not lined up right on the line are called backs: quarterback, halfback, running back, etc. There are similar defensive positions whose names I am forgetting.

So, before the offense lines up, the get into a huddle and the quarterback tells them what predetermined play he is going to call. What this means is that the guys on offense try to get to certain places on the field, or break through the holes created by the offensive line, so that the quarterback can throw the ball to one of them. Or it's a running play, where the ball is given to someone who will try to run through or around the defensive people and get closer to the goal.

So they run the play. The quarterback throws the ball to a receiver, who carries the ball 4 yards past the line of scrimmage. Now it's the second down, and they have 6 yards to go. They keep going, and suppose after the third down, they only have one yard to go to get past that 10 yard point. In the fourth down, they have the option to try to get past that point, which will give them a fresh set of downs and another 10 yards to try to go through. Or they can punt the ball, which is giving up their turn and giving the ball to the other team. This is like a kickoff, in that they kick the ball as far back as they can, so that the opposing team has a longer way to go before they can score on them.

This is an important decision, because if the offense "goes for it" and tries to get to that 10 yard marker, but fails, the other team gets the ball right at that spot. If you are really close to your own goal, the other team will have an advantage.

Sacking is when a defensive player tackles the quarterback while he is trying to throw or hand off the ball. It isn't a sack if the quarterback decides to run the ball himself.

Other things that can happen-
- the defense can catch a ball thrown by the offense. If they do, it's called a turnover, and now they are the offense.
- similarly, if an offensive player drops (fumbles) the ball, a defensive player can pick it up and run.
- penalties. These are assessed for various rule violations, and move the line of scrimmage forward or backward depending on who got the penalty. If the offense gets a penalty, the ball is moved backward, making their job of getting past that down marker harder. If the defense gets the penalty, the ball is moved forward, closer to the goal. If a first down is only 3 yards away and the defense gets a 5 yard penalty, the offense gets the first down and another set of 4 downs.
- each half of football is like a self contained game. at the beginning of the second half, no matter what was going on at the end of the first, the game play resets and the team who kicked off at the beginning of the game gets to receive the ball. The score, obviously, is maintained.

(Baseball- four bases: first, second, third and home plate. The pitcher throws the ball at the batter, who starts at home, and the batter tries to hit it. The pitcher tries to strike the batter out. The pitcher is restrained in that he can't just throw balls every which way- well, he can, but if he throws four of them (called "balls") the batter gets to proceed to first base. A batter is struck out by forcing him to make a combination of three strikes- these are either where the batter swings and misses, or where the pitcher throws a ball through the "strike zone" and the batter does not swing at it. The strike zone is an imaginary 3D cube-type area bounded on the sides by the edges of home plate, and bounded at the lower end by roughly the batter's knees, and at the upper by the batters abdomen somewhere. It changes over the years, and is also subject to the whim of the umpire. If the batter hits the ball, but it goes out of play, that counts as a strike. But only the first two strikes- the third strike must be a ball in the strike zone not swung at, or swung at and missed, or hit and caught by a fielder on a fly.

So the batter gets three strikes- now he is "out" and that team has one out that counts against them. The hitting team has three of these outs to try and score. If the batter hits the ball, he is free to run to first, then second, then third, then home, provided the fielders can't tag him first. The batter must to get to one of the bases in order to be "safe"- once he is on a base, he can't be tagged out and the play ends. In addition to tagging a runner out, there is also a force out. The batter must get to first base- he has no choice. If the fielders can catch the ball and step onto first base before the runner gets there, that's a force out. Similarly, if there is already a runner on first and the hitter makes a hit, that batter must run to first, and the guy on first must run to second. If the fielder has the ball and steps on second before the runner gets there, that runner is out. The fielder can then throw the ball to a teammate on first base, and if it gets there before the batter does, he is also out, and that's a double play. A runner can also only proceed after the ball is thrown by the pitcher. The runners proceed like this until they try to run home and score a point.

The game is played like this until there are three outs on the batting side. They then switch sides and the other team bats for three outs. This is called and inning, and nine of them are played.)
posted by gjc at 9:29 PM on November 29, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Football is totally awesome! One of the points beyond the basic rules that got me really catching on (as for any sport) is.. think about each play or each series (eg, one team's possession of the ball, whether it ends in a punt, field goal, or touchdown, or turnover) not as a zero-sum thing, but how it fits into the greater strategy. It's not just about who scored points right now. For instance, if a team is running the football quite a lot and gaining small amounts of yardage and spending a lot of time to do it, this might not just be the only way they're able to score points - it also wears down the opposing team's defense, because the more they're on the field, the more tired they get. That pays off later on. And it keeps the other team's offense off the field, so if you're playing a potentially high-scoring offense, it's extra important to use up as much time as possible on the way to scoring points. Once you get to the fourth quarter a team with a lead might deliberately go reaaaaaaalllly slow running plays - they're not going to pass the football to get a quick first down, that doesn't use as much time as running it for three downs, thus using up several minutes.

Other examples, if an offense throws a few deep (eg, long) passes 20-30 yards or more, and doesn't complete too many of them, those plays might not have worked as planned, but the defense might have to spread out more to defend against the deep pass, which opens up more opportunities elsewhere on the field for the offense to gain yards. Conversely, if you have a quarterback who everybody knows isn't that good at completing long passes down the field, the defense has an advantage in that they don't have to cover so much of that space. (This seemed to have happened to the New England Patriots for a while this year until Matt Cassel got used to the system and started chucking it downfield to Randy Moss..) Likewise if the defense is blitzing the quarterback (eg, basically, sending a lot of guys rushing super fast at him right when the football is snapped) quite a lot, and maybe isn't *actually tackling* him that much before he gets rid of the football, it still might help to throw off the quarterback's timing, rattle him enough so that he is less likely to take extra time and look at additional receivers if the original guy he'd planned to throw to, isn't open.

The line of scrimmage where the two teams line up before they snap the football - this is pretty important - if the lineman on the offensive side are getting pushed around and not able to block the guys on the defensive side too well, that is going to seriously disrupt the offense's ability to gain yards. The offensive lineman on a run play will be trying to push the defensive guys out of the way, so the guy running the football has space to go forward. On a pass play, the offensive lineman are going to need to stop all those defenders from reaching the quarterback before he gets a chance to pass to an open receiver. If they can't do that, the offense is probably not going to be able to gain 10 yards, so it will be fourth down and they'll have to punt.

I don't know if this is going to be too helpful, I have probably absorbed too much football speak (and yet still feel like a novice!), but just keep watching, things will start to make sense. It is a great game. I remember reading John Madden's One Knee Equals Two Feet a long time ago and thinking it was a lot of fun. Brett Favre thinks playing football is a lot of fun, and a lot of players will talk about having fun out there, but most of them are probably lying..

PS - Cosign on football being chess + violence, but the other great thing about it is that you have to factor in completely random strikes of lightning from the football gods - guys getting injured, miracle catches, referees accidentally missing calls, guys making a play when you'd never expect them to make a play. It's not predictable or fair. A couple moments like that coming out differently can make the difference between scoring a touchdown, winning or losing a game, making the playoffs or not making the playoffs, winning or losing the Super Bowl (see Tyree, David.. that one broke my heart..).
posted by citron at 12:15 AM on November 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

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