[William Birdthistle, guest-blogging, May 18, 2007 at 10:56am] Trackbacks
Sporting Sclerosis:

Any discussion of sport and law that grasps for comprehensiveness should consider what the two fields have to teach one another. The premise of such a consideration is, of course, that the two fields are separate, a claim that appears to grow ever more dubious. Rarely if ever will a season of professional sports pass by without the appearance of criminal allegations, contractual disputes, accusations of assault, claims of self-defense, defense of teammates, &c.

Witness this week's debate of rules versus standards in the Suns-Spurs series, in which David Stern vigorously defended the suspension of two of Phoenix's more important players for leaving their bench during an altercation. After parsing what an altercation was (do handbags count?), considering what the bench area is (they took just a few steps), and debating what leaving entails (one player claimed he was just heading to the scorer's table to check in), the league disqualified Stoudemire and Diaw from the subsequent game, which Phoenix duly lost.

Stern abdicated responsibility for the judgment, claiming that the rule is clear. Of course, as Bill Simmons has pointed out, this position ignores the league's responsibility for the rule in the first place. And while rules are always easier to administer than standards, one feels compelled to ask Mr. Stern whether the league and its employees receive generous compensation precisely because they are expected to make the difficult decisions. Perhaps there's a lesson here that soccer may not prosper from more rules and should instead leave a decent amount of discretion in the hands of its officials.

If the path of the law has anything to teach sports, it might be to turn around. Sports appear to be following legal fields such as corporate law and securities regulation along an unswerving route towards ever-greater regulation. Sarbanes-Oxley and new investment company rules have recently added significant layers of regulation to the management of public corporations and mutual funds. Similarly, American sports have just added new rules on such critical issues as what players can wear off the court. Things certainly appear to have gone too far when the FIFA's rules manual now includes this helpful interpretive guide:

Perhaps we need to institute a pay-as-you-go requirement, which would permit new rules in sports only when a corresponding number of existing ones have been retired.

I wonder, though, whether this is another area of cultural divergence. In sports such as soccer and rugby, in which the game is intended to be free-flowing with relatively few mandated stoppages, the addition of rules is antithetical to the style of the sport. In baseball and football, however, aficionados often take great delight in knowing the most arcane rules of interpretation. Since those games stop every few seconds anyway, their overall aesthetic is not significantly altered by adding new rules — the mastery of which only serves to enhance the sense of expertise its fans feel.

Perhaps, perhaps not. It just reminds me of a uniquely American trait to scientificalize things where possible. E.g., in the British Isles, someone who has a headache will typically ask for a "tablet"; in the United States, patients will consider the merits of acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen, &c.

What, then, lies ahead for the study of sports and the law? One of the biggest questions that arises whenever a new proposal emerges is "what will this do?" So perhaps the future of academic inquiry in this area will involve the increasing use of econometric and statistical analyses, such as the much-discussed study of NBA referees' own-race biases by Justin Wolfers.

For my own part, I'd enjoy looking into the handball rule. Players everywhere seem to believe that the offense has two, independent elements: a subjective scienter requirement plus an objective notion of benefit. Whenever the ball actually hits players' hands, then, they invariably claim either that they did not intend to do it, or that they did not actually get any advantage from it, depending on which account the facts seem most likely to support. Just like the good lawyers and politicians they are, handballers strive mightily to massage away the bad facts.