Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Basketball Formalism Prevails

After my post yesterday afternoon, the NBA decided to suspend Phoenix Suns Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw one game each for leaving the bench during what, NBA executive Vice President Stu Jackson said, clearly was an "altercation." Watching the video again, I can't say I that Jackson was wrong under the rule as written. Even granting that some element of subjective judgment necessarily enters into determining what counts as an "altercation," clearly what was occurring when Stoudemire and Diaw left the bench was much more of an altercation than what was occurring when San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan and Bruce Bowen left the bench earlier in the game.

Continuing the parallels with the arguments for formalism in law, Jackson stated: "No one here at the league office wants to suspend players any game, much less a pivotal game in the second round of a playoff series. But the rule, however, is the rule, and we intend to apply it consistently." Then, echoing Hart on the separation of law and morals, Jackson added: "It's not a matter of fairness, it's a matter of correctness, and this is the right decision at this point in time." Or as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. reportedly said in response to Learned Hand's urging that he, Holmes, "do justice": "That is not my job." Then, in various versions of the story, Holmes adds either that his job is to apply the law or, perhaps more aptly here, to play by the rules.

13 comments:

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Jackson's comments would be a lot more convincing if he worked for a league that at least pretended that superstars aren't treated differently or that enforced the traveling and palming rules consistently.

Jamison Colburn said...

It has been fascinating to watch this debate play out in public (and I must confess what a nerd I am: I even had similar thoughts about the nature of the dispute)! The Chuckster was the only Fullerian on TV last night, though, even going so far as to say he remembers the bench-clearer that occasioned the rule--not surprisingly, a game he played in. What I find odd is that no one has bothered to connect up the other possible purposes behind the rule besides preventing escalation of the "altercation." This is a league with real image problems in the last decade or so and allowing people off the bench during any altercation or even potential altercation simply makes it more likely that that altercation will be re-re-re-broadcast and become a symbol for the game. A "bench-clearing brawl," after all, is NEWS!

Michael C. Dorf said...

My former student Sasha Samberg-Champion emailed to remind me that Yale Law Professor William Eskridge began his review of Justice Scalia's book, A Matter of Interpretation, with a brief discussion of the leave-the-bench rule as it was applied in the 1997 Heat-Knicks playoff series. The citation is 96 Mich. L. Rev. 1509.

Patrick Dwyer said...

Put your scholar hat aside. As far as I can tell, the Spurs have been awfully quiet about this incident I would waive enforcement of the rule and then see if anyone complained. The Spurs would then look a little ridiculous complaining, although less ridiculous than Stern for enforcing this rule.

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Justin said...

I would love to get my hands on Eskridge's review. Missing that full subscription to Lexis now, aren't I.

There are interesting parallels between the Spurs, their style of play, and those members of society who are traditionally given the benefit of the doubt in the legal arena due to privilege, entitlement, baseline assumptions, call it what you will.

There are also interesting parallels in the mechanisms by which they take advantage of their privilege. To wit: Bruce Bowen's incessant hand-checking is in clear defiance of the letter of NBA law. However, he is allowed to continue possibly for reasons of expediency (judicial efficiency?). They would have to whistle this clown every time down the court. However, their decision to allow him to continue to assault while quashing any self-help remedy is in defiance of basketball culture. The result is a gradual erosion of the rule of law in the eyes of the alienated (e.g., PHX Suns, fans, Rasheed Wallace), a chippy playoff series, some hard fouls (knee to the nads=ejected from the game in my league), and ultimately the travesty that we are now presented with.

Furthermore, frustration with the uneven enforcement portrayed as formalism leads to lack of faith in a system of enforcement. If this thing goes to seven, let's see if Horry attempts a dunk or high-flying rebound in the vicinity of [Always a Knick] Kurt Thomas. I suspect we will see a breakdown of social order of Laimbeer-ian magnitude, in the classic skull-bouncing Eastern Conf. style, even.

Thus will the league be rewarded for its allegedly neutral application of blind legal doctrine which is in fact slanted toward protecting the priveleged class. They will create the effect which they ostensibly sought to prevent, a nasty bench-clearer which destroys the memory of what should have been a great series.

Benjamin said...

Who knew there were so many scholars eager to apply the law to basketball? For the Columbia alums/faculty reading this, I wanted to remind you that the NBA's textualist-in-chief is our very own David Stern, CLS '66.

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