21 July 2007

Justice on the Court

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The sports world is atwitter with controversy today over the suspensions of Phoenix Suns center Amare Stoudemire and forward Boris Diaw from tonight's pivotal fifth game of the Suns' best-of-seven playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs. For those who have no idea what I'm talking about, a quick summary: In the closing seconds of Game Four, Suns guard Steve Nash, a two-time NBA Most Valuable Player, was leveled by a hockey-style cross-check from Spurs forward Robert Horry. Horry was suspended for two games for the hit, but the resulting incident also led to the one-game suspensions of the two Suns players for violating a ridiculously inflexible NBA rule about leaving the bench during an "altercation." Neither player came anywhere near the incident—in the case of Stoudemire, probably the Suns' second-most important player, he took only a few steps toward Nash, who at this point was still lying on the floor near the sideline, before being restrained by one of his coaches. Nevertheless, he was suspended for one game. If online polls and message boards provide an accurate gauge of the public's feelings, a vast majority of NBA fans appear to find the suspensions of the Suns players unjust. Commentators like TNT's Charles Barkley and ESPN's Skip Bayless have complained about the league's excessively literal enforcement of a stupid rule and have rightly pointed out that the suspensions effectively reward the Spurs for starting a fight, since the Suns will lose one of their best players for tonight's critical game while the Spurs only lose a bench player for two games. Others have responded by defending the NBA's decision with some variation of the "a rule's a rule" argument.

Rather than explaining all the reasons why the NBA's decision is moronic, wrong-headed, infuriating, and sadly typical, I'd like to focus on an aspect of the controversy relevant even to non-basketball fans. NBA enforcer Stu Jackson may have summed up the philosophical issue at stake here best when he said yesterday in defending his decision, "It's not a matter of fairness. It's a matter of correctness." Asked to clarify that comment today on ESPN radio, Jackson explicitly equated the two concepts, saying that his decision was fair because it was correct—that is, because it represented a consistent application of a rule that he deemed to have been clearly violated. But is fairness always the same thing as correctness? The equation seems to preclude the possibility that a rule itself can be unjust or that it should be interpreted in light of the specific circumstances of a given situation, notions that I think would seem reasonable to most people. Even so, the idea that fairness is the same as correctness informs much of our social life in this excessively literal-minded era, when everyone from sports commissioners to high school principals boasts about "zero tolerance" policies and our law books are cluttered with mandatory-minimum sentences and "three strikes" statutes. In order to change these policies, it is first necessary to free the concept of justice from the bonds of legalism in the public mind. Many fans hope that this week's incident will lead the NBA to finally rethink the leaving-the-bench rule over the offseason, but it's also an occasion, however trivial, for a more fundamental sort of rethinking.

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