Using the absence of a specific rule against it, the underdog team brings in an adorable animal to play for them and wins the big game.
The classic setup: The new kid in town joins the local sports team populated by the Ragtag Bunch of Misfits. What they lack in skill, they make up for in Team Spirit. But it looks hopeless: The Opposing Sports Team is in town and gunning for the championship. Their coach is a Drill Sergeant Nasty and the town bully is the star player.
Thank goodness, someone on our team has an animal that has just revealed its untapped, unbeatable sporting abilities! The other team may rant and rave, but there's nothing they can do about it. Why? Ain't no specific rule again' it! This is the Animal Athlete Loophole.
But in reality, such a move would be stymied by other rules. Age limitations, for one: Try finding an arthritis-free dog large enough and old enough to play outside Little League Baseball. Then there are registration requirements: a legal name and school affiliation. Obeying the rules of play are a whole other issue: A dog is physically incapable of dribbling a basketball and there is no known ape or monkey with legs properly developed to kick a soccer ball.
Still, family films aplenty adopt the premise and take it to the heartwarming if illogical conclusion.
Dogs and monkeys are usually the go-to animals for these kinds of film, but any size animal will fit through the loophole.
Animal Athlete Loophole is a subtrope of Loophole Abuse. If the events of the plot cause someone to add a specific ban on Animal Athletes, it's an Obvious Rule Patch.
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Anime and Manga
Used, surprisingly, in Samurai Champloo. In a baseball game against the Eagleland Navy, ninja Kagemaru is a little shorthanded. Even after conscripting Mugen, Jin and Fuu, he needs five more players. So he gets a really old man (who dies in his first at-bat), Fuu's pet flying squirrel Momo, and a dog. When one of the American sailors objects, the umpire consults a rulebook, and rules that "I can't find anything about dogs in the rulebook. He's good." note Fun fact: One of the Americans was named Abner Doubleday, who has a lasting belief that he invented the game.
The pitcher proceeds to get rid of the dog by hitting it with a pitch. (He had no other choice - the dog's so small that the strike zone is laughable.) The dog runs off with a yelp, and Kagemaru concedes, "Of course, he's still a dog."
In one chapter of the manga Kochikame, Ryotsu is asked to play on a hockey team. The opposing team has a polar bear and penguin playing, and point out that there is no rule saying they can't.
Rune Soldier Louie: A horse wins a race, as the rules did not specify that the winner has to be a human, and "The great god Mylee never discriminates against anyone."
Soccer Dog and Soccer Dog: European Pup: Ain't no rule that says a dog can't play soccer!
The Air Bud series: There's no rule that a dog can't play basketball/football/soccer/baseball/volleyball/skateboard!
The Most Valuable Primate series: Ain't no rule that says a chimp can't play hockey/skateboarding/snowboarding!
Funky Monkey: Ain't no rule that says a monkey can't play football!
Ed: Ain't no rule that says a chimp can't play baseball!
Gus: Ain't no rule that says a mule can't play football!
The Horse That Played Center-Field: Ain't no rule that says... you know what.
Subverted in Peanuts, where there ain't no rule that says a dog can't play baseball... but he plays just like every other member of the team (and it's Charlie Brown's team), and Snoopy sometimes gets mistaken for a short kid with a big nose. Except in the TV specials Charlie Brown's All Stars and It's Spring Training, Charlie Brown, where in order to get into an organized league, the team must abide by its rules against animal players. In the latter, Lucy was not allowed as a girl, but Little League Baseball had changed its policies just in time for Lucy to play.
Babe: Ain't no rule that says a pig can't compete in a sheep herding dog trial! Actually, that one's more a trick of semantics, as the trial registration form requires "Name of Animal". The narrator even mentions that had it been "Name of Dog", they couldn't have entered Babe. This also happens in the book. The fields on the form there were "Name of Owner" and "Name of Entry".
In the film version of Stuart Little, most of the boats in the race are being operated by remote control. Guess there Ain't No Rule that says a mouse can't be sailing one.
Racing Stripes, a kids' movie about a zebra that wants to be a racehorse. To quote The Other Wiki's summary, It is similar in the style to the 1995 movie Babe, in that the protagonist is a talking animal who lives on a farm and succeeds at an activity not expected of his species. While there's a greater similarity between horses and zebras than there are in most examples of the trope, even most horses can't compete as racehorses, because races are generally limited to a very specific breed of horse (thoroughbreds, quarter horses, etc.) and these terms are minutely defined (often even to how the animal was conceived); funny as it might sound, there's no way you could enter a zebra as a "quarter horse" (with the implication being that the other three quarters are zebra).
Inverted in Space Jam—the Toons challenge the tiny aliens to a game of basketball, not expecting them to cheat and steal the talents of actual basketball players, necessitating them to add Michael Jordan to the team.
Turbo is entirely built around the concept of a snail competing in a race meant for cars.
Discworld: No rule saying an orangutan can't play football! Since the wizards are writing the rules of football themselves as they go along, of course, there wouldn't be. The climax relied on this (for non-ape reasons), with the twist that there actually was a rarely-used rule allowing it. It was implied there soon be an Obvious Rule Patch.
Naturally, the Librarian was already in the habit of using this same Loophole to safely peruse books of arcane secrets "Man" Was Not Meant To Know.
There's also no rule saying a sentient piece of luggage can't play football. However, it really can't. As in, it has no ability.
There's also no rule barring an orangutan from the college council, though the wizards looked very hard for one.
In Thomas E. Spencer's poem "How McDougal Topped the Score, McDougal's dog isn't technically playing cricket... but there ain't no rule that says you can't get your dog to fetch the ball and keep it away from the fielding side while you run 50!
In the Leaping Lizards entry of the Nintendo Adventure Books series, the Mario brothers and company are competing in the Mushroom Games. Why? The king of the Mushroom Kingdom has been turned into a rabbit and the prize is a magic whistle that will change him back. This rabbit form however is advantageous; depending on what choices you make, you can have the king in rabbit form complete the high jump event and win big! Of course, the Koopas complain about this selection not being fair - which turns out to be bizarre as they themselves cheat throughout the games.
Live Action TV
Averted in an episode of Happy Days. The other team might not have complained about Richie's high school hockey team using a German Shepard for a goalie but Richie's team ended up losing that game 12-0.
Mister Ed steps up to the plate for the Los Angeles Dodgers in an episode.
The webcomic Concerned (set in the world of Half-Life 2) shows the erstwhile hero telling a monster called a Gargantua "There's no rule against having a Garg play soccer! This is gonna be the best season EVER!"
Played with in Boxer Hockey, where anyone can play, "Even good 'ole Fido". That being said the Sydney Screamers' goalie is a kangaroo.
Parodied on The Simpsons. After adopting a horse, Homer spends hours training it as a placekicker, then checks the rulebook to see whether horses can play in the National Football League. Turns out, there is a rule.
"Show me where in the rule book it says a human can't be a robot!" "Right here. Rule one."
In the Looney Tunes short "Gone Batty" (1954), when the Gas House Gorillas knock out the heroes' lineup with dirty tricks, the Sweetwater Shnooks put their mascot, a baby elephant named Bobo, in to play for them. The Gorillas protest, but as the umpire says, in singsong fashion: "There's nothing in the rule book that says an elephant can't pitch! Now play ball!"
Basically a remake of "Baseball Bugs" (1946), in which Bugs Bunny (Hence the second word in the cartoon's title) not only pitches but plays every position at once. Bugs then proceeds to invoke Loophole Abuse everywhere.
Of course, the Bugs example is inverted in that it's the opposing team that made him play; Bugs was badmouthing the Gas House Gorillas, claiming that he could beat him all by himself, and the Gorillas decided to take him up on his offer. "So, big shot? You think you can beat us all by yourself, huh? Well, you got yourself a game!"
Parodied on Clone High, where Lincoln directs a film called It Takes a Hero, based on the premise that "There's no rule that says a giraffe can't play football."
Subverted in another episode, where there is a rule at Clone High that says that women and animals cannot play boys' basketball. (Joan sneaks in anyway.)
(So do the animals.)
In the 1980s Dennis The Menace (US) cartoon, there ain't no rule that says a dog can't play football. There is, however, a rule that says plays cannot be made with a player's mouth, so Ruff is disqualified.
An episode of South Park that parodied (and was slightly named after) You Got Served (and similar movies), had Stan's Ragtag Bunch of Misfits dancing team include a dancing duck. The duck gets injured, forcing Butters to finally join the crew, with disastrous results.
In Rocky and Bullwinkle "Wossamotta U" story arc, the title duo received football scholarships because of Bullwinkle's throwing ability. The rulebook said that anyone can play college football except for a mouse.
In Sagwa, the Chinese Siamese Cat, there was one episode where the Foolish Magistrate entered Sagwa in a caligraphy contest. Her status as one of the entrants was validated because there was no rule against cats entering the contest. The Magistrate tried to enter the rest of Sagwa's family but there was a rule against having more than one entrant from a same province.
In King of the Hill, there's a passing reference to a movie about a goat playing football. Peggy tries (and succeeds) to get into the movie for free by showing the ticket seller her press pass (as she worked with a newspaper at the time) and saying she wants to tell the readers if it's really possible for a goat to help a down-and-out football team.
In actuality, most if not all sports have a rule in the books that prevents a player or team from any action that is a mockery or is intended to create a travesty of the game. This clearly falls under such a clause.
For a practical matter, the umpire/referee/officials generally have jurisdiction over stuff that's not covered in the rule book.
This has actually happened in some instances (not so much any more) causing specificrules to be written. Although this is usually done to prevent college pranks and mascots joining the game.
Any school or college team trying to pull this off would be out of luck, anyway. The animal would have to be enrolled as a student.