“Let ’em Play” — Day 4: Of Rules and Standards

Recall Tuesday’s contention: Competitive sports go better, all else equal, insofar as contest outcomes reflect the competitors’ relative excellence in executing the particular athletic virtues that the sport is centrally designed to showcase, develop and reward. Call this “the competitive desideratum.” If something like this is so, then we should identify the athletic challenges that the rules governing tennis serves are designed to hone and test.

To a first approximation, the challenge is to strike the ball with power and accuracy into a specified space. Yet serving while standing at the net would not conform to the athletic challenge that tennis service is meant to present. So a refinement is necessary. Perhaps this: the challenge is to strike the ball into a precisely defined space from a precisely defined distance.

Notice that if this is the best understanding of the athletic challenge presented by serving in tennis, then temporally variant enforcement of foot faults would not serve the competitive desideratum. If it’s constitutive of a core athletic challenge in tennis to hit the serve without touching the line, then to forgive a server’s having stepped on the line would frustrate that athletic ideal and would contravene the competitive desideratum.

But perhaps that is not quite the athletic challenge that the service rules embody. Perhaps the challenge is better formulated as the ability to serve the ball into a precisely defined space from a generally defined distance. That is, notwithstanding that the formal rules specify both the starting point and the landing space with precision, the underlying athletic challenge that the rules codify involves a precise target but a general launching site.

I am tempted to describe the challenge this way: “get the ball in here from around there.” That puts things too loosely, but it conveys that the sport might care more about precision in the placement of the served ball than precision in the placement of the server’s body.

Arguments could be mustered to bolster this interpretation of the core athletic challenge in serving. But I concede that it’s debatable. Let’s move on because my jurisprudential ambitions are served by exploring what might follow if this is the better conception of the athletic challenge; it’s not essential to establish that this is the better interpretation of tennis.

Importantly, that the foot fault rule is written in hard-edged terms does not disprove that the real norm the rule implements is a standard that prohibits servers from going “too far” over the line, or that prohibits “unreasonable” encroachments. Even if the true norm is a standard, it doesn’t follow that the formal norm should assume the same shape.

Because the factors that bear on reasonableness would be debatable in every case, considerations like predictability, certainty, and finality all forcefully favor implementing this norm by means of a rule rather than by means of a standard. This is Rules vs. Standards 101.

In short, I am suggesting a critical asymmetry. The written criteria of valid service that govern the landing of the ball and the placement of the server’s feet are, in both cases, rules rather than standards. But they are formulated as rules for different reasons.

The former is a rule because it reflects an aspect of the underlying athletic challenge that is itself sharp-edged and rule-like: get the ball in the pre-defined space. Tennis rules require that the ball go into the service court because that’s the nature of the challenge of serving. It is how tennis instantiates one of the most commonly tested skills across all of sports: target-hitting. Horseshoes and curling notwithstanding, precision is generally part of the nature of targeting.

Although a target’s contours may be arbitrary, the demand that competitors hit the target and not merely come close is not arbitrary, for the rule is designed to test and reward that particular class of physical excellences (needed by, e.g., archers and riflemen) involving accuracy and precision in limb-eye coordination. The rules of tennis require that, for a serve to be valid, the ball must land within the defined service court because that is the nature of this particular athletic challenge.

In contrast, the formal norm governing foot placement is rule-like not standard-like, I suggest, because, although the aspect of the underlying athletic challenge that it captures is standard-like (start behind the line and don’t go unreasonably over it), we have good institutional reasons to codify it in bright-line fashion.

To coin terms, we might say that that portion of the power-conferring rule of tennis service that requires the serve to land in the service court is a “true rule,” whereas that portion of the rule that requires the server not to step on the baseline is a “rulified standard.” It is often thought that norms are standard-like in what we might call their “natural” state, and that they become rules, when they do, in response to institutional pressures. I am suggesting that this is true of some norms but not all. Some of the rules we come across are rules naturally.

Granting me all this, does it follow that line judges should enforce the rule governing faults as though a foot fault could occur only when the server steps unreasonably far over the line? No. A rulified standard is, after rulification, a rule, not a standard. To routinely pierce the rule and apply the underlying or animating standard would defeat the purposes served by having rulified it.

But that we must not routinely pierce a rulified standard does not mean that we must never pierce it. Whether to disregard the rule’s form in favor of its underlying considerations is always at least askable with regard to rulified standards. That is a central upshot of the distinction between rulified standards and true rules.

At least two additional requirements must be satisfied to pierce a rulified standard: (1) that enforcing the rule as a rule would produce unusually high costs; and (2) that disregarding the rule’s form on this occasion would incur low costs on the dimensions, such as predictability and the like, that warranted its rulification.

These two additional conditions are probably satisfied by foot faults in crunch time. Enforcing the rule as a rule is costly because doing so allows the foot fault to unduly impact the match outcome. That is, it undermines the “competitive desideratum.” And the costs of piercing the rule are low because nonconformity with the rule is hidden, given that tennis does not employ its Hawk-Eye electronic system to judge foot faults.

From the perspective of optimal game design, that might be a good thing. Rule makers who want to preserve rule-enforcers’ discretion to sometimes apply the standard that animates a rulified standard should arrange things so that non-compliance with the rule isn’t apparent. Transparency is not always a virtue.

Of course, even if the ethos of tennis should permit line judges to assess crunch-time foot faults against the underlying standard of reasonableness, not against the nominal rule, that does not fully resolve the Serena Williams case. Her foot fault would have run afoul even of the standard if, for example, her transgression was substantial or repeated. I think it wasn’t, but needn’t argue about that here.

In sum, my analysis is doubly contingent: if the foot fault rule is a rulified standard not a true rule, and if Williams complied with the underlying standard-like norm governing service, we’d have promising support for McEnroe’s contention: the line judge should have cut Williams some slack.

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