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“Let ’em Play”: Overview

Many thanks to Eugene for inviting me to discuss my just-published paper “Let ‘em Play”: A Study in the Jurisprudence of Sport, 99 Geo. L.J. 1325, in this forum. I’m grateful for the opportunity and look forward to your comments.

Recall the women’s semifinal of the 2009 U.S. Open, pitting Serena Williams against Kim Clijsters. Having lost the first set, Williams was serving to Clijsters at 5-6 in the second. Down 15-30, Williams’s first serve was wide. On Williams’s second service, the line judge called a foot fault, putting her down double-match point.

Williams exploded at the call, shouting at and threatening the lineswoman. Because Williams had earlier committed a code violation for racket abuse, this second code violation called forth a mandatory one-point penalty. That gave the match to Clijsters.

Williams’s outburst was indefensible. But put that aside and focus on the fault. CBS color commentator John McEnroe remarked at the time: “you don’t call that there.” His point was not that the call was factually mistaken, but that it was inappropriate at that point in the match even if factually correct: the lineswoman should have cut Williams a little slack. Many observers agreed. As another former tour professional put it, a foot fault “is something you just don’t call – not at that juncture of the match.”

The McEnrovian position – that at least some rules of some sports should be enforced less strictly toward the end of close matches – is an endorsement of what might be termed “temporal variance.” It is highly controversial. As one letter writer to the New York Times objected: “To suggest that an official not call a penalty just because it happens during a critical point in a contest would be considered absurd in any sport. Tennis should be no [...]

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