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The 11th Frame: Intercollegiate Championships head in wrong direction with lane pattern decision

JEFF RICHGELS | Posted: Friday, November 15, 2013 5:00 am

Making the playing field visible enhances understanding and fairness, and removes any possible questions about shenanigans and unfair advantages. Photo by Pro Bowlers Association.

This is one man's opinion. Considering the stances I have taken over the years for open posting of lane patterns, fresh oil for all squads at the USBC Open Championships, etc., I'd be a hypocrite not to take this position.

While the PBA took a huge step in moving bowling forward toward more transparency and understanding of playing conditions, the Intercollegiate Championships are headed in the opposite direction.

It’s distressing, especially since I greatly respect the folks in charge and involved.

As I wrote about here, the PBA debuted visible oil at the World Series of Bowling, a huge step forward in enabling non-bowlers to understand the challenges of the sport, but also a big step forward for competitors for all the reasons I laid out in that story.

One of them is that when the playing surface is visible you can tell if anyone is playing games with the pattern, or perhaps just made an honest mistake — recall the 2009 PBA Regional Players Invitational when a terrible mistake that harmed the integrity of the tournament would have been clearly apparent with visible oil before a shot was thrown! (It's important to note as I did in that article that visible oil has problematic issues and those must be addressed before it can be widely used!)

I’ve argued for years that fairness demands that lane patterns be posted in advance of all tournaments and available to all competitors.

Secrecy, in my opinion, is all but impossible. As I’ve long said about lane patterns, SOMEONE ALWAYS KNOWS. And when someone knows, the potential is there to gain a potential advantage.

And even if total secrecy were achieved, it breeds mistrust among competitors, which inevitably leads to suspicion of anyone who bowls well, whether they are innocent or not.

Secrecy also makes a competition more about guessing and random luck more than intelligence and skill. For example, Player A guesses correctly that it's a gutter shot and that he should use ball X and shoots 279 out of the gate. Player B guesses an inside line and ball Z and starts 179. Player B eventually figures out what is out there and outbowls Player A the rest of the day but never makes up the difference from Player A's advantage in lucky guesses at the start.

To me, this is a lesser way we want our sport to be than to have all players have full and equal knowledge in advance! How can anyone think a random guess for starting ball and line is better than a thought out game plan? Just because it's "always been that way"?

Practice can help alleviate this, but there isn't always enough practice to mitigate the guessing and randomness. You might barely get enough shots to get loose, and not enough to see if your guesses were correct.

Guessing and randomness are terrible ways to determine the outcome of sporting competitions and bowling should be doing everything humanly possible it can to eliminate them!

Secrecy is a loser all the way around for all involved — even when those in charge are totally trustworthy and honest!

So it pained me to read the recent IBC Youth news release announcing that for the 2014 XBowling Intercollegiate Team and Singles Championships the lane pattern used for the event will not be disclosed to players or coaches prior to play. The information will be provided after the tournament ends so coaches and players can at least use it as a learning aid.

"The athletes and coaches will simply need to let their ball be their guide throughout the competition," International Bowling Campus Managing Director of Youth Development Chad Murphy said in the IBC Youth release. "Sharing the pattern in advance provides so much strategic information about length and volume that it gives a roadmap of where to play and ball selection. Collegiate championships should be won based on shot making and the ability to read ball reaction rather than looking at a graph. The athlete's skill and coach's collaboration on strategy adjustments will play a more central role in determining outcomes."

Yes, heaven forbid that coaches and players must come up with a game plan. That's not a part of any sport, is it? And when you know the pattern in advance, you never win with shotmaking and reading your ball reaction, do you? And the athlete’s skills and coaching collaboration haven’t played a central role in deciding championships where the pattern was disclosed, have they?

This would be truly comical if it were not so sad.

I have great respect for Murphy — there are few people who have worked harder for or care more about youth bowling — and the group that leads youth bowling and made this collective decision, as it's the one area of bowling that is doing relatively well these days.

But those that made this decision are making a terrible mistake.

Update: It should be emphasized that IBC Youth made this decision collectively and Murphy says it was based on input from its constituency who will play under this policy. However, he said on Facebook that it actually was 43 percent for and 57 percent opposed to the change. And here are some comments from some of the most prominent coaches in the country in the CollegeBowling.com message board.

"We decided the coaches were not ever going to come to an agreement on this and moved past this group for the decision," Murphy posted on Facebook. "As I said earlier.... it's not the minority or majority that would support this, 'collectively' the group questions today's scoring escalating and we felt we could look at this as an agent to curb some of that."

As you can see from the comment, what's at least partly at play here is complaints from some coaches and teams who feel like secrecy eliminates the potential advantage of teams that can practice on the patterns and devise game plans in advance and perhaps drill new balls.

There are easy answers for that: post the patterns only on-site at the Intercollegiate Championships before official practice AND allow players to alter the surface of their balls during competition, meaning a 3-ball arsenal instantly becomes a 10-ball or more arsenal. (This is a USBC rules change I've been campaigning for for a long time, as it helps level the playing field between staffers and non-staffers and the well-to-do and less well-to-do.)

Of course, that means it's a total guessing game for players in choosing the five balls to bring to the tournament (that is the limit). Perhaps giving out the distance, volume and lane surface in advance, and then the pattern on-site shortly before competition starts would be a good compromise.

For perspective, the Team USA Trials follow World Tenpin Bowling Association rules and post the pattern banks (short, medium and long) 60 days prior to the event, then announce the patterns at the team managers meeting a day before practice.

The new IBC Youth policy will be implemented in partnership with bowling tournament service provider H2M Management, an excellent and highly respected company based in Indianapolis. The ownership core of H2M is Nick Hoagland, Steve Harman and Dylan Murphy.

Nick is a good friend, former Midwest PBA laneman — I was Midwest PBA Bowler of the Year when he did the lanes in 1999 — and PBA executive who I would trust with my life. Steve I also know and trust. Dylan I do not know.

The release says that “H2M Management will develop the competition pattern confidentially and provide lane maintenance for the 2014 XBowling Intercollegiate Team and Singles Championships as well as sectional qualifying events.”

I talked to Nick about this. I believe H2M will do everything I can to keep things secret. But, as I’ve said, that’s really irrelevant.

Secrecy is a loser all the way around for all involved — even when those in charge are totally trustworthy and honest!

Nick's statement in the news release is that "Our mission is to provide objective, consistent and transparent services that help elevate the integrity of events for our sport making this partnership a perfect fit."

Hiding the playing conditions is “transparent” and will “elevate the integrity” of the events?

George Orwell would be proud!

This policy is taking bowling back to the dark ages of lane conditions, plain and simple. And sometimes those darks ages were very bad. Complete transparency in lane patterns is the best way to eliminate all shenanigans and all doubt and provide the fairest test for all competitors. It's also the best way to teach and learn, which is what college bowling is all about, isn't it?

Anyone who believes otherwise just does not understand what bowling should be about.

Instead of this misguided plan, why not take the Intercollegiate Championships forward and formulate a plan to use visible oil in the tournament (assuming its issues are worked out)?

Making the playing field visible enhances understanding and fairness, and removes any possible questions about shenanigans and unfair advantages.

THAT is the direction ALL bowling should be headed.


For more, there is a great thread with dozens of comments and give and take by many, including Murphy, on my Facebook page here.