Rashard Higgins’ controversial Browns fumble stirs a debate: What is the worst rule in sports?

Browns receiver Rashard Higgins had the game in his hands, and he handled it carelessly.

This is not how one survives in the NFL playoffs. Which is why Cleveland is going home.

Higgins’ fumble as he extended the ball toward the goal line — but didn’t quite make it — traveled over the right sideline in the end zone. By rule, that resulted in a touchback, and the Chiefs were awarded the ball at their own 20-yard line with 1:34 left in the first half. The Browns trailed by 13 points at that juncture, so a touchdown would have put them within single score of the lead going into the break. They wound up losing, 22-17.

The Browns became victims of what some people call the worst rule in sports. Those people are wrong, but their argument is a compelling one.

There is no other position on the field where a fumble that travels out of bounds is not returned to the fumbling team. Just those that occur at the end zone and are not recovered by either team (or those that occur at one’s own end zone and unrecovered, resulting in a safety). CBS analyst Bill Cowher suggested at halftime of the KC-Cleveland game the fumbling team should retain the ball but be placed back at the opposing team’s 20. He pointed out that’s a more severe price than any offensive penalty incurs.

The Higgins play ignited a lively debate, played out on Twitter, about whether this, indeed, is the worst rule in sports, with dozens of different regulations presented as possibilities. Here were a few of the leading candidates.

MORE: Did Chiefs’ Daniel Sorensen commit helmet-to-helmet penalty against Browns?

Dropped third strike in MLB

There are those who think this is ludicrous, but it is totally grounded in the logic of the game. If the catcher need not catch the ball to complete the out, then why wouldn’t any foul tip on the third strike be rung up as a strikeout? This isn’t a bad rule. This is an essential rule.

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Verdict: Not even a contender.

Designated hitter in MLB

We’ve lived with this one for half a century, and it’s always been unnecessary. It removes some interesting strategy from the game – yes, I know, the world hates the sacrifice now – and puts one more player into the lineup who does nothing but swing for the fences. It’s an invention designed to create more action, and such demands usually come from those who don’t care much for the sport.

But here’s the thing: It’s a fair rule. Each team has the opportunity to replace its pitcher with someone more adept at hitting. Like it or not, it’s neither illogical nor unjust.

Verdict: Doesn’t even get up to bat.

Defensive pass interference = spot foul in NFL

Colleges award only 15 yards for defensive pass interference, and many who follow NFL football believe this should be the rule in the pros. But reducing the penalty incentivizes breaking the rule. If I’m a college DB who’s likely beaten for a TD, I grab the receiver and pull him down. Worst case scenario: 15 yards instead of 50. Best case: Ref misses my foul. 

Verdict: The NFL has this one right.

Targeting in college football

Let’s see: Someone out there believes defensive players should be able to use their helmets as weapons? That can’t be true. Probably it’s the belief that the penalty – immediate ejection – is too harsh. It is extremely punitive. But one would think with such a severe sanction awaiting those who engage in this behavior, there would be almost no instances of it in college games. And still we had the same Clemson player dismissed from consecutive CFP games.

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Yep, it’s harsh. It needs to be to get players to stop leading with their helmets. 

Verdict: Come on, people, use your heads.

Charging in college basketball

The sport’s rulesmakers – overwhelmingly coaches and game officials – love charges more than cupcakes, sunshine and Tom Hanks movies. The coaches think it rewards toughness and teamwork; mostly it rewards flopping and punishes exciting attacks on the basket.

This is not about a ballhandler who bulldozes the player assigned to guard him; the issue with charges is the with the “help” defender who slides in at the last second and absorbs contact from the player who’s trying to put the ball in the basket, which is the object of the game. The justification for the charge rule is the defender is entitled to the space being occupied. But no active player should be occupying space; he or she should be performing a function. Standing is not to be confused with defending.

In 2013-14, then NCAA coordinator of officials John Adams and the rules committee tried to reduce the incidence of such charges by requiring the defender to be in legal guarding position before the offensive player initiated a scoring move. The charge nearly was extinct. Refs complained it was too hard to call. Coaches hated it. And here we are.

Verdict: This would be the light-heavyweight champion.

Fumbling through the end zone is a touchback in NFL

This is what got us started, so it’s worth discussing. It is easy to declare this a bad rule, because it’s undeniably punitive — and it doesn’t match up with the logic of the game. If one fumbles in the field of play and the ball goes out of bounds, it is returned to the spot of the fumble. So if Higgins’ error had been addressed according to the standard rule, the Browns would have had the ball at the KC 1, first and goal.

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There is something to be said, though, for punishing a player who is careless with the ball at the most important place on the field. Cowher’s idea likely would be sufficient punishment. A very strong argument could be made for following the rules in force for the whole of the playing field.

Verdict: Possibly the No. 1 contender.

The advance-the-ball timeout in NBA

This is the undefeated champion. Being permitted to advance the ball closer to the goal by calling timeout is entirely contrived. It penalizes the team that does the better job through the course of the game. It’s antithetical to the competitive logic of the sport. Time and space matter for all but those crucial final seconds, then they are tossed aside for the sake of manufactured drama.

Does it create excitement? One could say that it does. It also diminishes excitement, because the challenge of conjuring a game-winning basket when the ball is advanced to midcourt is far less daunting than when one must traverse the length of the court in 4.8 seconds (Tyus Edney) or 2.5 seconds (Bryce Drew) or 2.2 seconds (Christian Laettner). And, worst of all, there’s no price to be paid for those 50 feet. They still allow you to take your timeout and draw up a play.

Verdict: Forever, trash.