The Last Word

The libero position made sure there was always somebody the fans could identify with.
The libero position made sure there was always somebody the fans could identify with.

Liberos are such an integral part of the game these days, but it's interesting to remember it wasn't so long ago they were a new addition. In this article from the January 1997 issue, writer Don Patterson hashes out the pros and cons.

First of all, the name has got to go. The Libero? Sounds like something out of an anatomy book that would get a kid grounded if mentioned at the dinner table. Call me boring, but I can’t figure out what’s wrong with defensive specialist.

As for the rule itself, I think it has possibilities. The FIVB used it for this year’s Grand Prix and is planning to test it through 1997 with the idea of making it permanent in ’98. The spirit behind the Libero is twofold: Make the game a little more spectacular by creating a position that encourages diving digs and longer rallies, and give the common folk a player to identify with.

Liberos can sub in an unlimited number of times, pass and dig, but can’t hand set in front of the 10-foot line, serve, or attack. At first glance, this seems like too many restrictions, but there is a reason behind it. The Libero is supposed to extend play, not shorten it. So if a coach decides he wants to sub in a big back-row banger or a potent jump server or a surprise setting specialist as a Libero, that defeats the purpose.

The problem is, a Libero who can’t attack is useless in some situations. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for this player to have to bump the ball over the net on the third contact rather than hit from the back row in a situation where he is the only player who can get to the ball—particularly in the eyes of the average fan, who will undoubtedly wonder why this player can’t take a swing like everybody else. Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy solution. I called one coach who jokingly suggested that the Libero have a height limit, say 5’4” for the women and 5’7” for the men. That works on one level, but obviously, it’s ridiculous on another. Call it volleyball’s version of discrimination.

Another idea is to allow a fixed number of Libero attacks per match. That might work, too. But it runs counter to all the recent talk about the need to cut down on protocol in volleyball and make it more fan friendly. The last thing you want to do is add more red tape to a sport that already makes its players jump through hoops just to get into a match. (Can you picture football players standing on the 50-yard line, holding up a paddle before being allowed to join the huddle? I’ve never understood why volleyball players can just run to the scorer’s table, tell somebody who they’re going in for and do it.)

Maybe the best way of reaching the goal of longer rallies is simply to forget about the Libero and adopt rules similar to those that were used in the old IVA, the indoor coed pro league that existed in the 1970s and early 80s. In the IVA, the serving orders were the same as the standard game, but players didn’t rotate. When you boil it all down, this actually makes a lot of sense. Let the redwood trees do their thing up front, and let the waterbugs dart around in the back and make digs. That makes for a lot more power and a lot more defense.

With a no-rotation format, the 10-foot line could be eliminated. In men’s volleyball, it isn’t much of an obstacle anyway. Most international players jump so far in from the back row that they hit about four feet off the net, which makes offenses hard to stop. Do away with it, and you end up with three players running combos against three net players and more exciting rallies.

Some would argue against no rotation by saying it makes the game too specialized. But so what? The NBA is specialized. The big guys play center, the not-quite-so-big guys play power forward, there’s a shooting guard who shoots and a point guard who handles the ball. And the game is still exciting because players are doing what they do best. If basketball was set up like volleyball, Shaquille O’Neal would be forced to spend part of the game trying to shoot jumpers from the perimeter even though he’d be hard pressed to sink a 15-footers through a Hula Hoop. Everybody pays to see him dunk. So let him dunk.

A second argument against no rotation is that it might legislate out the mid-sized player. That seems unlikely. Maybe some players would get cut out, but great mid-sized players will find a way onto the court. You’ve got to think there’s always going to be a place for Karch Kiraly, even though he’s only 6’2”.

The way I see it, no rotation is the wave of the future. Maybe not in high school and college, where it pays to have players learn the all-around game so they’re better prepared to move up to the next level. But at the international and pro level, absolutely.

Until then, the Libero is probably a good start. At least it’s something new. And just as football and basketball aren’t the same games they were 30 years ago, volleyball needs to keep up with the times to avoid getting stuck in the dark ages.

Originally published in January 1997

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