Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Kobe Bryant and Intent

The NBA suspended Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant for one game as punishment for elbowing San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili in his previous game. Bryant and the Lakers objected to the suspension because, according to Bryant, he did not intend to elbow Ginobili. League officials disagreed, noting that Bryant threw his arms backwards (striking Ginobili) after attempting a shot, an "unnatural" motion in basketball, according to Stu Jackson of the NBA front office. Bryant had an explanation: He flailed his arms as he did in an effort to draw a foul call. He hoped to draw attention to himself but did not intend to hit Ginobili. Bryant's explanation is credible because there is no known animosity between him and Ginobili.

I'm not especially interested in the merits of this dispute (except to the extent that Bryant's absence was the key to the Knicks' victory over the Lakers), but I do think it interesting that Bryant's exculpatory account was that he was trying to con the referees! And he's right in that assessment. Pretending to have been fouled is an important skill in the NBA. The generally acknowledged master was Reggie Miller, who after attempting a shot with an opponent in shouting distance, would frequently fall to the floor as though he had been shot by a sniper. Sometimes Miller would get the call; sometimes he wouldn't; but no one ever suggested that what he was doing was against the rules or even unsportsmanlike.

That's quite peculiar, isn't it? Well, yes and no. Consider parallels in the law. Sometimes deception merits special punishment. For example, a witness who lies on the stand commits perjury, a serious offense. Likewise a tax cheat who tries to disguise an illegal deduction by using the form of a transaction that is otherwise legal will not only have to pay the tax but could also be charged with tax fraud. Yet in other contexts, we seem to expect people to engage in deception. For example, a defense lawyer acts within his rights---indeed, probably has a professional duty---to challenge the veracity, perception or memory of witnesses that he knows are providing accurate testimony. What is cross-examination along these lines if not a deliberate effort to mislead the jury?

Is there a coherent account of when the law treats intent to deceive as relevant and when it does not? One might take the view that intent is never relevant because of the difficulties of proof---but of course the criminal law typically makes intent (or at least knowledge, which can be equally difficult to prove) highly relevant to culpability. Interestingly, although conventional wisdom holds that the difference between a category 1 flagrant foul and the more serious category 2 flagrant foul (which results in a player's ejection) is that the latter requires an intent to injure, the actual NBA rule does not draw a distinction based on intent. So apparently Bryant was relying on the common law of basketball in his defense.

18 comments:

A. said...

I wonder, from a moral, rather than legal perspective, whether the common practice of baseball (out)fielders to pretend to have CAUGHT all balls that end up in the vicinity of their mitts, or of batters to walk quickly toward first base in the hopes that an ambivalent umpire will simply let inertia take over to allow the walk can be justified. My sense is that in a pickup game of softball, where there are no third party umpires, players (myself included) are far less likely to fake a catch or a walk (well walks don't exist, though foul tip strikeouts do--only fair given the slow pitch speed and huge ball size). The reason, of course, is that you feel you would be cheating your friends/opponents in such circumstances. Similarly, when playing pickup basketball, I would never knowingly deny stepping on the out-of-bounds line, though I would actively deceive with intent were it a game with officiation and scoring.
While you might question why simply raising the stakes--playing professionally for money, e.g.--would alter the moral calculus (the moral acceptability of stealing hardly ever turns on the amount of pecuniary gain (or loss?)), you might alternatively wonder if the fact of a third party referee changes the moral calculus, and if this is justifiable. In other words, maybe the fact of a mistake-prone "ref" makes deceptive behavior tolerable because you assume a certain practical inability of the person with power to make a correct and procedurally justifiable decision?
Or maybe, this is all just simple Hobbesian thinking: in anarchic conditions where one's adversaries are also striving to lie, cheat, and elbow their way to the top, it is irresponsible to do otherwise?

Michael C. Dorf said...

Adam's comment lends some credence to the claim of judicial review skeptics that judicial review leads legislators not to take their own constitutional obligations seriously. With the Supreme Court "referee" available to decide the constitutional question, lawmakers feel liberated to feign constitutional compliance, as in the federal Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, which recites as "findings" a number of demonstrably false factual claims.

Jamison Colburn said...

Ok, sure. But the real heart of the claim is the fact that Reggie Miller was, in all seriousness, the most heinous abuser of this tactic--trying to get a ref's attention to a player on the opposing team--in the history of the game. (The international rules give a technical to people like him.) Sure, anyone who has been ref'ed playing the sport knows that doing so's part of the game no matter how fair the officiating. A lot of strategically valuable fouling (like hand checks) simply goes unnoticed. But what Miller can look back on as his legacy is having contributed in no small way to the poisoned atmosphere of the NBA (and its officiating) that makes watching a game feel like taking sides in a political heat of some sort. To be more decorous (and less disgusted with pro sports), isn't this evolution what Justice Scalia fears in his attacks on "legislative history"--a worry the legislators will start adapting play accordingly?

kb2188 said...

Some comparative law on perjury:
In civil law countries, there is usually no exclusion of evidence, on the principle that judges are competent to evaluate all evidence with its proper weight. This extends so far as to require criminal defendants to testify at their trials. Obviously that would be a harsh rule if it were combined with a perjury. But instead, defendants are allowed, indeed expected, to lie.

Octopus Grigori said...

Might be of interest that in soccer players can receive yellow cards for pretending to fall during a play (i.e., for trying to draw a foul call).

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