Monday, February 19, 2007

Sports and the Rule of Law

Yesterday's New York Times Sports section carried a front-page article describing a rules crackdown by NASCAR. I confess up front that I know virtually nothing about NASCAR or the particular rules that are at issue. The article noted, though, that NASCAR officials had decided to try to distance their sport from its outlaw past (apparently, the sport started with moonshiners outrunning "revenooers" on country roads in the states of the old Confederacy) in order to broaden its already considerable appeal to suburbanites both inside and outside the South. The theory, evidently, is that a sport cannot be taken seriously by modern Americans if it is well known that the rules are winked at and that cheating is even expected.

I do know something about professional basketball. One of the accepted truths among NBA types is that the league's explosive growth from the 1980's onward has been based on emphasizing the superstars. Magic, Bird, Jordan, Shaq, and their heirs are able to put fannies in the seats and increase TV ratings and merchandise sales. The corollary to this is that the league openly allows and even encourages unequal enforcement of the rules. When Larry Bird was fouled, he could get a three-point play by a "continuation" of his move that defied reason. Magic Johnson could take three or four steps so long as he was making a spectacular pass. Michael Jordan could draw a foul in a key situation simply by being near someone. And Shaq is allowed to commit offensive fouls with impunity apparently because he is so big that it is unreasonable to notice that he flattens men who have established their defensive positions.

What is extraordinary about the NBA is that these player-specific violations of blind justice are not only acknowledged but even celebrated. Hubie Brown, a former coach and broadcaster, would laugh and say things on official NBA broadcasts like "He hasn't been in the league long enough to get that call against Kobe," and "The refs aren't gonna make that call in Chicago." Such comments never, to my knowledge, evoked denials or discipline from the league. (The league does crack down on some things, though, such as unacceptable clothing choices and fighting with fans.) Contrast this with the NFL and MLB. Even though there is a lot of complaining in football about the rule called "roughing the passer," I have never heard anyone claim that certain quarterbacks get special treatment, only that all quarterbacks are either too exposed or too coddled. In baseball, you'll occasionally hear muttering that certain pitchers and batters receive the benefit of the doubt on balls and strikes; but this is denied by the leaders of the sport and is officially prohibited.

Although something of a reach, I find the political slant on this interesting. What might be the ultimate red-state sport (stock car racing) is now embracing the rule of law as a way of legitimizing itself in the eyes of swing voters. Meanwhile, the ultimate blue-state sport (i.e., the sport most closely associated with African-Americans and with urbanism) celebrates its choice to openly ignore its own rules. Maybe the NBA's legitimacy is not yet suffering for its lack of adherence to the rule of law, but I view NASCAR's choice as something to celebrate (even if I will never actually watch the sport).


Derek said...

Reading your post it occurred to me that "important" and powerful people in our society (i.e. politicians, CEOs, athletes, celebrities, etc.) definitely get some special treatment with respect to the rule of law, although perhaps we don't go so far as to celebrate that fact. So I guess that puts us somewhere between the NFL and the NBA on the rule of law spectrum. Ice Hockey?

Neil H. Buchanan said...

U.S. college hockey or European hockey, yes. NHL goon-squad hockey, no. The NHL is in some ways worse than the NBA (encouraging fighting by not cracking down on it -- except to protect superstars). The NHL's fate might actually be the best example in sports of the dangers of lawlessness to the long-term appeal of the sport, though there are obviously many other factors at play.

Caleb said...

I'm not sure the NHL is such a good example. It seems to me that it remains as popular as ever in Canada (And as you suggested different factors might account for its unpopularity here in the US). What's more, the rules against fighting (limited as they are) ARE enforced. On some level, fighting has always been a part of the game - early player who risked slapshots to their unprotected heads were probably not very worried about a punch. Having watched lots of hockey (admittedly on Canadian Network TV), I've never seen any rules infraction celebrated in the same way as the examples you cite from basketball.

(As for a "sport" that thrives on rule-breaking, what about the inexplicable popularity of the WWE?)

Michael C. Dorf said...

A "sports legal realist" might say that Neil and others are being unduly formalist about the rules. In the real world there is law on the books and law as enforced. E.g., you can drive up to 10 mph above the posted speed limit w/o getting ticketed, except in "speed traps." Likewise, in sport. E.g., although the official vertical limits to the strike zone in baseball are knees to letters of the uniform (roughly the nipples on a man), the unwritten rule is that any pitch substantially higher than the waist or gut will be called a ball. But Neil is right that one can't really find openly-embraced person-specific deviations in real law. When we note them (as Derek does), it is to lament the deviation from blind justice. I take it, though, that the NASCAR change seems to be targeted at deviations between the written norm and the practiced norm in general, not just person-specific deviations.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

It's true that there are norms of enforcement that deviate from the formal rules. Another baseball example is the "location play" at 2nd base on possible double plays, where the runner is called out even if the middle infielder doesn't really touch the base. There is a defensible argument for this, though, which is that such a norm prevents injuries.

My complaint is not about that but about an attitude that says, "Well, there's rules and there's what you can get away with." Mike's right that there is a second step that we must take to get to the NBA's problem, which is letting certain people get away with things because of who they are. I don't know enough about NASCAR to know whether that was also part of the problem. Even choosing not to enforce the rules and norms, though, is a problem.

This then raises Caleb's point about the NHL actually enforcing its rules against fighting. The rule of law is not only about treating everyone equally, nor is it only about enforcing the rules. It is also about trying to make sure that the rules are reasonable and good. The NHL has always feared alienating a fan base that loves gooning and thus has never been able to expand its base. Saying that it's not as bad as the NBA because they're not breaking the rules is ultimately unsatisfying because many (most?) reasonable people who have seen hockey played under different rules know that it is a beautiful game when played right.

I admitted that the analogy to politics is a stretch, but I still think it's there. All of these aspects of the rule of law -- equal treatment, reasonably vigilant enforcement, a constant effort to improve the laws themselves -- are important, and it's heartening to me to think that the majority of Americans ultimately find lawlessness to be unacceptable. Elections can turn on how much lawlessness we are willing to stomach.