Trivia 061: Running out of numbers

I hope that everyone has their brackets picked out and their bets in, because it’s that time of year again! That’s right, it’s time to gamble on whether or not winter is over! I mean, I drove through quite a bit of snow on my way home from work today. And here I was wagering that we wouldn’t get any more snow this year because I purchased a new pair of snow boots.

Jokes aside, March marks the beginning of “March Madness”, aka the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Men’s Basketball tournament. This is one of the most popular sporting events each year (in the US), and a great cause for casual gambling. However, I’m not here today to talk about the capitalist profit structures that drive society to encourage exploiting college students for gambling, whilst drawing money away from academics. By the way, if you disagree with any of my assessments here, feel free to send me a reply to argue with me. (I very rarely get replies to these, so you know at least that would be validation that you’re reading this.)

Instead, let’s focus on something that you might notice if you actually spend time watching the games, rather than just betting on the outcomes. As someone who doesn’t watch nearly enough sports to know any actual players, the easiest way for me to keep track of individual players is by watching their jersey numbers. This is, after all, essentially what the numbers are there for – to help a referee (or spectator) easily identify a specific player. However, there is a small problem when it comes to assigning jersey numbers – teams might run out.

But how could that be possible? After all, a college basketball team can only have 15 players, and there are plenty of numbers to pick from, right? Even if we limit ourselves to only whole numbers, we will still have infinite options, after all. Well, we have to introduce some limits. First of all is common sense. Of course you can’t have a player numbered 542,000. So we stick to double digits. That still gives us a good 100 options to work from, right? 0 through 99 should be more than enough for a team of 15 players. Well, here’s where one of the interesting rules of the NCAA comes in.

In college basketball, players are allowed to have 00, 0, 1-5, 10-15, 20-25, 30-35, 40-45, and 50-55 as their numbers. For those of you keeping track at home, this gives players a whopping total of 37 options to pick from. Actually, it’s more like 36 options, since a team cannot have both 0 and 00 in their roster. This might seem like a rather eclectic group of numbers, but the reasoning behind it actually makes a lot of sense. In order for a referee to call a foul, they use their hands to indicate the jersey number of the offending player. Their right hand is used for the tens digit, and their left hand is for the ones digit. Since (most) humans only have five fingers on each hand, this means that no digit can exceed five. Amusingly, however, the NCAA has no records on what exactly prompted this rule to be added.

Still, 36 is greater than 15, so we’ve got plenty of numbers to field a team. For now, that is. After all, a common tradition amongst many sports institutions is retiring numbers. If a team has a particularly famous or important player, they might be honored when they leave the team by having their number retired. In other words, that number is set aside so that no other player on that team may use it. And, well, eventually teams might run out of numbers. Ultimately, if a team does end up retiring 22 numbers, perhaps this may force a rule change. Other leagues, like the NBA, do allow all whole numbers up to 99. Until that day comes along though, you shall only see the numbers six through nine on the scoreboard.

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I was trying to make a title for this one relating “March Madness” and “Mad as a March hare”, but I couldn’t do it. If I think of something after the fact, I may edit this post.

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