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).