My Pickleball Thoughts, pickleball, Uncategorized, USA Pickleball

Pickleball rules – Loopholes in sports

NOTE: be sure to read the comments too.

Sports depend on rules. Rules create an environment for fair play in competition. Every year, USA Pickleball publishes a list of rule changes, rule additions, cuts and revisions to the previous year’s rules. I suspect this will continue with more new rules and changes in 2022 and every year going forward. At the risk of sounding negative, I dread getting notification of the changes every year. This year’s change document is eighty one pages long. Granted, most of the changes have to do with tournament play, but several of the changes will affect every pickleball player, whether they are playing in tournaments or recreational only.

But, this post isn’t about those specific changes. It’s about the need for ever changing rules in any sport, many of which have rules books that have become overly extensive. Anyone familiar with the game of golf will tell you that the most recent USGA Rules of Golf book is some 240 pages long. In addition, the USGA publishes another book called Official Guide to the Rules of Golf, (Formerly called, Decisions of Golf) which at over 350 pages includes situational interpretations of the rules and modified rules for players with disabilities. I’d wager that very few golfers have taken, or even have the time to read these important publications. Luckily, there are shorter versions available as well.

This post is also about the reasons that those who oversee the rules of sport feel the need to constantly make changes and new rules. Any serious sport participant, regardless of skill, but particularly those at the tournament and professional levels, have one goal in mind; to succeed. In order to do that, they must maximize their advantages and seek to achieve their goals as quickly as they possibly can. Often, rules get in the way, so we find loopholes.

What is a loophole? Well, a quick Google search states that a loophole is an “ambiguity or inadequacy in the law or a set of rules.” In short, that means a loophole exists when an action can be taken that is not totally addressed, or not addressed at all in a set of rules.

An athlete, in searching for ways to succeed, might look for ways to play around the rules, while not breaking them. According to Norwegian researchers, Øyvind Kvalnes and Liv Hemmestad (2010) in their paper entitled, Loophole ethics in sports, a rule-based approach may encourage what they call loophole ethics, “an attitude where every action that is not explicitly defined as wrong, will be seen as a viable option.”

Some might consider these actions cheating, while the acting player would argue that there was no rule that said the action couldn’t be performed. So, how do we address these situations, and close those loopholes? We make new rules that specifically address the loophole action. And the rules book gets longer, and the cycle continues with new loopholes identified, and new rules to prohibit that particular action in the future.

Alternatively, sometimes an action taken as a result of an identified loophole which is not deemed as harmful to the integrity of the game or sportsmanship, becomes part of the game. Erne Perry found a loophole, and his shot, appropriately named the “Erne shot,” became part of the game. He realized that by jumping completely over the corner of the NVZ, without breaking any of the NVZ rules, he could volley the ball, making contact closer to the net, usually surprising the opponent, and often winning the rally with an un-returnable shot. He found a loophole, and in this case, it became a very popular and exciting shot to execute and to watch!


In the newest USA Pickleball change document, Rule 13.D.1. starts, “In the spirit of good sportsmanship, players are expected to call faults on themselves as soon as the fault is committed or detected…….
Shouldn’t this statement be an overall guidance to the entire rules book, and not simply prefacing one rule? Shouldn’t there be a demand for honesty and sportsmanship to prevail in our sport? Some might think there is, but when new rules are introduced for the purpose of reducing cheating and closing loopholes, we are clearly overlooking honesty and sportsmanship. We want to believe everyone will play fair, but lets face it, they don’t. And with pickleball growing to professional levels where athletes make money based on success, the trend will continue even further, and more rules will be introduced.

The above sited Norwegian researchers suggest that sport could benefit from a more general, principle and value/ethics based set of rules, rather than the detailed rule standards that are most common in sport, and which create the opportunity to find loopholes and/or cheat.

Unfortunately, cheaters DO win, which is why we have a rules based culture. But, player reputations speak loud and clear. Everyone knows a player who is known for bad line calls or who uses an illegal serve to their advantage. In the spirit of good sportsmanship, should rules be further expanded for the purpose of stifling cheating? Personally, I don’t think you could write enough rules to keep a player who wants to win by whatever means necessary, including cheating, from doing so. And also, in my opinion, in their own minds a cheater doesn’t even believe they’re doing anything wrong.

So write those new rules. But keep your pencil sharpened, because as soon as they are published, you’ll be writing more.

  • How could pickleball benefit from a principle/value/ethics based rules set?
  • What would this type of rules set look like?

Think about it. I’m interested in your opinions. Leave a comment below.


To read the entire paper by Norwegian researchers, Øyvind Kvalnes and Liv Hemmestad (2010) entitled Loophole ethics in sports, click the following link. I found it to have some very interesting viewpoints.

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6 thoughts on “Pickleball rules – Loopholes in sports”

    1. Hi Rodney,
      Great to hear from you! You have two great questions! The first has an easy answer……YES, the let serve will now (in Jan 2021) be legal. Your second question, as to the reason for this rule change is also easy to answer, since USA Pickleball put out a long explanation, however it opens a HUGE can of worms in my book. I’m going to use this space to share their reasons, and also my opinion on them. After which, I should probably resign my Ambassador position for opposing their decisions.
      First, the rules committee says that they changed the rule for these three reasons (I am taking this straight from their change document).
      1) to preserve the integrity of the game,
      2) for the best experience for the players (make it easier for them to learn, play, etc).
      3) what’s best for officiating; less conflict and arguing with refs and players (they stated that #3 was not taken into account when making the rule.
      Ok….here I go.
      • Preserving the integrity of the game. In their own words in the change document, “The ‘let’ serve rule opens up a loophole for inaccurate, (intentional or otherwise) calls.” There’s that word, “loophole.” Remember the Google definition I found was, “an ambiguity or inadequacy in the law or a set of rules.” I never found the rule that described a let to be anything but clear. What do you think?

       Rule 4.O.1. defines a let as, “The serve touches the net, strap, or band and is otherwise good and lands in the service court.”
      Could it be stated any clearer? NO.
      So why is the rule being changed? I’ll just say it. According to their explanation for the change, it’s because of a few cheaters.

      Why do I oppose this rule change? I don’t really care if the let serve is legal or not. I just don’t think it needed to be changed. I DON’T think it preserves the integrity of the game that the founders created. I think it was changed because a few tournament players cheated. They also said that its not really an issue in recreational play, again pointing to tournament players.

      As for it being a loophole that needed to be closed, I couldn’t disagree more (again I direct you to the definition of loophole) The existing rule is very clear. There is no loophole.

      I’ll ask you (Rodney, or anyone reading this.) Have you ever had a real conflict on the court whether in recreational or tournament play, because of a let serve? Perhaps, but to the extent that it caused an argument with someone who you know to be an honest player?

      Don’t you think a cheater will find other opportunity to make a bad call in their own favor?
      I’ve seen the comments in the forums on FB regarding this, and over and over people are saying, “calm down, there are so few let serves, it won’t be a problem.” That’s exactly my point. Why change the rule if its such a small problem?

      My solution? I would have rather seen someone invent a “tell tale” device to install on the net cord that would wiggle or otherwise indicate that the net had been struck.

      2. What is best for the players. Which players? Recreational players or tournament players? In their intro of the reasons, they say they want to make the game easier to learn and play. Yet, their explanation for this change is only based on eliminating player conflict. There’s nothing to offer why this makes the game easier to learn and play. They go on to say how infrequently this happens, especially with recreational players, because they will easily accept the replay. So, again, they are referring to cheaters at the tournament level. And still, they state that this doesn’t even happen at that level a lot. So why change a rule?

      3. As to their third reason, what’s best for officiating. I’ll add that they clearly stated that this decision had nothing to do with this reason, so I’ll gently touch on it. Most of what I’ve said in #1 and #2 address this (conflict) anyway.

      They mention that some referees start each rally with their hand on the net cord until the serve has passed, so that they can feel if there’s a let. They then move back into their normal position a few feet from the side of the court. However, they say that not all referees do this. Now there’s a loophole! Not all referees touch the net because it’s not required in the referee handbook. CHANGE THAT!!! That’s how you close a loophole. Require referees to touch the net cord for the serve, then stand back. Problem solved. They can feel if there’s a let, and there’s no conflict! For games without referee, I’ll go back to the point that it’s such a rare occurrence there’s no need to change the rule.

      I’ll once again touch on the thought of a value/ethics/ principle based rule set. Demand honesty, and address the individuals who don’t put honesty first. Understand that players will make bad calls. Some on purpose (cheaters) and some because they honestly thought that’s what they saw. You cannot eliminate conflict on any competitive playing field by changing rules. Especially rules that are game foundation standards from the founders. Before you know it, the NVZ rules will be eliminated making a volley at the net legal. That would eliminate the need for honest foot fault calls, which I see as a bigger problem than let serves!

      All the rules in the world won’t eliminate conflict. They will only make the game more difficult for the masses of recreational players.

      DEMAND HONESTY IN PICKLEBALL, or deal with the conflict.

      I’m pretty sure this more than answered your question Rodney……. I better get my ambassador resignation letter ready.

      Liked by 1 person

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