There are many unwritten rules in sports. So many that apparently we don’t even know all of them. That’s because they’re unwritten. Which makes you wonder why they aren’t written. Anyway, I wander as I wonder. The rules are silly, nonsensical and easy to counter. Here is a sampling of just a few unwritten rules:

Don’t bunt if the opposing pitcher is working on a no-hitter (or just don’t swing the bat, period).

Don’t steal a base when your team has a big lead (sit down and relax — or don’t get on base in the first place).

Don’t score or throw long passes if your team has a big lead late in the game (just give the ball to the other team, for crying out loud).

Don’t call a timeout if your team has a big lead late in the game (just slug the other coach in the face if he does it).

Well, anyway, that’s what Juwan Howard, the University of Michigan basketball coach, did recently, which brings us to another rule, written, unwritten and pretty much understood:

Don’t slug the other coach in the face.

This did not occur on the playground or street corner, but you might have thought so to watch this bizarre episode. This played out on the University of Wisconsin court with a packed house and a TV audience. The Badgers were winning 77-61 when their coach, Greg Gard, called a timeout with four seconds left.

Related
If it’s unwritten, it’s not a rule

Howard seethed. After the game ended, he was slow to join the postgame handshake line. He ignored and attempted to walk past Gard. Perhaps wanting to explain his timeout, Gard reached out to stop Howard. This only agitated Howard. He grabbed a fistful of Gard’s shirt and poked a finger in his face as harsh words were exchanged.

Players and assistant coaches swarmed around them, further accelerating the tension. Gard’s assistant, Joe Krabbenhoft, was especially vocal toward Howard and then suddenly Howard threw and landed an open-handed punch to Krabbenhoft’s face, inciting players to brawl.

“I didn’t like the timeout they called,” Howard said later. “I thought it was not necessary at that moment, especially with it being a large lead. … I thought it wasn’t fair to our guys.”

So he punched someone.

The timeout did seem unnecessary, but no more necessary than Howard ordering his players to continue with a full-court press in the waning seconds, down 15 points. And Gard was playing reserves — reportedly walk-ons — by then, which ought to count for something in Howard’s idea of sportsmanship.

“We only had four seconds to get the ball past half court,” Gard told CBS. “I didn’t want to put my bench guys in that position of scrambling, so I took the timeout. He did not like that when he came through the handshake line.”

The Big Ten Conference suspended Howard for the rest of the regular season (five games) and fined him $40,000. Gard was fined $10,000 for “violation of the conference’s sportsmanship policy,” and was not suspended. Three players were suspended one game.

“Big Ten Conference coaches and student-athletes are expected to display the highest level of sportsmanship conduct,” commissioner Kevin Warren stated in the official announcement. “… Our expectation is that the incident yesterday will provide our coaches and student-athletes with the opportunity to reflect, learn and move forward. ...”

There’s been some debate about whether the punishment fit the crime, but, if anything, it was on the light side. Coaches cannot be allowed to resolve differences by throwing punches, even if some unwritten rule was violated, even if someone says something they don’t like, even if their team just got embarrassed. There’s no way his behavior can be justified. And — you knew this was coming — it certainly doesn’t set a good example for the players, who are told by coaches to be disciplined and poised only to see their coaches exercise neither in the heat of a game.