Nobody Likes a Sore Loser

At the end of Tuesday night's Western Conference final game 4, Brent Barry attempted a 3-point shot that would have given his San Antonio Spurs the victory and tied the series 2-2. Barry missed badly, but not before he appeared to have been fouled by Los Angeles Lakers guard Derek Fisher. Under the NBA's "continuation" rule, Barry would have been awarded three free throws with no time on the clock, and Barry, an excellent free throw shooter, could well have won the game right there. To make matters worse, the referee who did not call a foul was Joey Crawford, who has had a stormy relationship with the Spurs---most famously calling a technical foul on Spurs All-Star Tim Duncan for laughing while seated on the bench.

Yet to their great credit, the Spurs have not complained about the non-call. To be sure, their case would not be especially strong. For one thing, it's not entirely clear that Fisher fouled Barry. Barry pump-faked, Fisher jumped, but then Barry dribbled once to put himself in Fisher's path. Perhaps Adrian Dantley or Reggie Miller might have gotten that call on the defensive player, but under the rules as written and as they are often interpreted, no call, or even an offensive foul on Barry, might have been the right response from the referee. Even the NBA, which, after reviewing the video after the game said a foul should have been called on Fisher, said it should have been a non-shooting foul. And the refs blew a call---failing to reset the 24-second clock---in favor of the Spurs on the previous play.

Nonetheless, by uniformly refusing to blame the refs, the Spurs have shown a great deal of class. (Some might say atypically so: Bruce Bowen regularly punches and otherwise takes cheap shots at players he's defending; Manu Ginobli acts as though he has been shot in the abdomen if a defensive player gets to close to him; and Tim Duncan stares in disbelief whenever a foul is called against him.) And this brings me to the law. (You thought I was going to tie this to Hillary Clinton, didn't you. Ha!)

The widespread admiration the Spurs have earned for their refusal to blame the refs reflects a politically conservative sentiment: People should take responsibility for their own misfortunes rather than ascribe responsibility to external factors. One sees this principle at work in the movement that ended welfare (AFDC) and the movement away from explaining criminal behavior in terms of social factors. One also sees a closely related principle in conservatives' hostility towards tort plaintiffs, even though people who suffer injuries as a result of others' negligence or misconduct are not, as a class, responsible for their misfortune at all. Nonetheless, the same basic principle applies and goes something like this: "Life's unfair. Suck it up. Stop whining."

Whatever one thinks of this principle in these policy domains, the fact that nobody likes a sore loser shows that, in some contexts, it has considerable appeal.

Posted by Mike Dorf