Monday, September 7, 2020

The Rules Made Me Do It!

Here’s a story ripped from the headlines.  Yesterday at the US Open, Novak Djokovic accidentally hit a linesperson with a tennis ball.  He had just dropped his serve at love, and – clearly frustrated – took a ball out of his pocket and knocked it behind him.  (He might have hit it a tad bit harder than usual, but sending a leftover ball to the back of the court after completing a service game is standard practice.)  A split second after thoughtlessly hitting it, Djokovic looked back to see it had struck a linesperson, and was clearly horrified to see what he had done.  After rushing back to apologize, a lengthy conversation with the tournament referee ensued.  The outcome was that Djokovic was defaulted from the match and tossed from the Open.    

I’m of two minds about this.  A longtime Federer fan, I’ll cop to a little schadenfreude for any misfortune that befalls The Djoker.  (What’s a good nemesis for, anyway?)  But as a human being interested in rules, fairness, and normativity, the decision strikes me as a mistake. 

Here’s a second case.  In the 2018 US Open Final, Serena Williams played Naomi Osaka.  Early on, Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, was cited for nonverbal coaching.  This gave Williams a ‘code violation’—basically a verbal warning from the chair umpire.  Serena protested that she had not cheated, and the chair umpire admitted her point, responding, “I know that.”  From there, however, the match “descended into chaos”.  In the second set, Serena broke her racquet in frustration.  Because she had already been issued a formal warning, this time the rules required her to be docked a point.  Serena was incensed.  She declared the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos, to be a thief.  He issued a third code violation for “verbal abuse,” resulting in Williams dropping a game at a crucial moment. 

It’s easy to see things spiraled from what appeared to be a simple ambiguity.  When Serena initially talked to Ramos after Mouratoglou’s coaching violation, she had insisted that she had not cheated.  Ramos agreed that she had not cheated.  From the player’s point of view, they had settled their difference.  From the official’s point of view, the issue was not that a player had cheated, but that the rules demanded a code violation for a coach’s action.  So when the racquet incident came around, it could appear either as the “first” of Williams’s violations, or as the “second” violation assessed to Williams, depending on how you were counting.

My present concern is not to resolve what was or was not retracted by implicature of Ramos’s from-the-chair speech act, “I know that.”  Rather, my claim is that for the US Open to turn on niceties of this sort is ridiculous.  Serena herself was the first to make this point.  When Donna Kelso, the Grand Slam Supervisor, entered the court to explain how Ramos was following the letter of the law to an understandably upset Williams, Serena countered: “I get the rules, but I’m saying that it’s not right.”

Serena’s case is different from Novak’s.  The most basic rights are those protecting one’s physical person, so it matters that someone suffered harm in today’s episode.  The only physical damage done in the 2018 final was to Serena’s Wilson Blade racquet, which I strongly suspect she owned outright.  But anyone on the ground of a grand slam tennis match appreciates that tennis balls will be moving through the air.  Djokovic is the responsible party, as he also understood.  However, it’s hard for me – at least – to see how altering the course of the Open in response to a truly bizarre accident serves anybody’s interests (except, well, Federer’s – and so by extension, my own).  Like I said, I see both sides of this one.

Don’t worry about that.  Believe as you will about Novak and US Open rules.  I’ve taken my (and your!) precious time getting to it, but what I’m really after here is The Rules as a kind of normative banner.  In the wake of today’s decision, lots of commentators have insisted that the tournament referee had to throw Djokovic out because The Rules required it. 

Two points about this.  One: whenever anybody says “The rules require it!” I strongly recommend consulting the fine print.  Two: what The Rules require is not conceptually transparent to what’s right. Serena was too smart to be go in for that bit of bureaucratic doublespeak, and we should be, too. 

I teach a big intro class at a university.  Alas, there are rules.  Lots of rules.  My syllabus is full of them.  Yours probably is as well.  But here is the thing.  I – for one – have learned by sad experience that I’m just not clever enough to construct any set of rules such that their strict enforcement will serve the values I care about.  I don’t know quite why this is.  My experience is that enforcing the rules is bad for me, and for my most vulnerable students.  Now, you might think I haven’t thought hard enough about how to make the rules fair.  And maybe so.  But no matter what rules I put down, those rules aren’t even dry on the syllabus before Ambitious Students will have figured out how to maximize their interests within the game those rules constitute.  And because I have to grade on a curve, that’s not great news for not-so-ambitious students.  For whatever it’s worth, my very consistent experience is that the students who stand to win from The Rules are overwhelmingly upper-middle class or rich, white, and male.  Nothing against those students, who are within their rights to play by the rules.  But a system where you only get ahead by figuring out The Rules and playing hard within them will not be neutral in upon whom in confers benefits and burdens.

I’ll end with a jeremiad.  I have met The Rules.  I hate them.  Including my own.  Sometimes I feel a temptation to enforce The Rules against a student whom I really feel has it coming.  “They called me a thief!” I’ve said in my own way.  But when I’m in that state, I’m not seeing things right.  People I trust have to tell me to suppress my vanity, to let go of the rules.  I have never regretted following their advice.  I’ve also had students try to enforce The Rules against themselves.  (Curiously, never the same students eager to use the rules to get ahead.)  That’s not good, either.  I don’t work for The Rules, and nor should they.  Were we created for the syllabus, or the syllabus for us?   

What’s my thesis?  When someone tells you they are just following the rules, it’s also true that they are following the rules.  We cannot divest ourselves of responsibility for our actions by saying the rules made us do it.  They didn’t.  There’s a question about what the rules say, and there’s a question about what’s right.  Running those questions together is more dangerous than a flying tennis ball.