Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Par for Confusion

From February 25, 2009 to March 1, 2009, the eyes of the golf world, and its many fans, settled on a thorny desert golf course outside of Tucson, Arizona for the Accenture Match Play World Golf Championship event. The primary focus of media attention at the outset of the tournament was the return of Tiger Woods to the professional golfing tour. As compelling as this story was to golf fans and non-fans alike, there was another, more subtle subtext to the championship which raises startling questions for the relationship between information on rules, the media, and the public.

Unlike the standard golf tournament system to which at least US viewers are accustomed through near weekly exposure during the golf season, the Accenture championship uses the “match play” format more commonly used in other areas of the world. Briefly, match play format pairs up golfers and the winner of the pair on each day advances. Ultimately, there is a two player final, in which the competitors play 36 holes of golf to determine the winner. Although seemingly easy to understand, this format is steeped in unusual rules. The difficulty of not knowing the applicable rules was compounded by the desert terrain of the Accenture championship venue, which resulted in several situations where players were faced with a choice between incurring a penalty or playing a ball shrouded in dangerous cacti and other obstacles.

Throughout the championship coverage, which was split between the Golf Channel and NBC, the sports commentators represented a distinguished group of former elite golfers and seasoned sports reporters. This group of commentators provided information on everything from the personal lives of the players to the design of the unique desert course, yet rarely did they provide a clear understanding of the rules of the tournament’s format and play. Listening to the former golfers, it was obvious that they understood the rules of match play – and that some had themselves played tournaments using the match play format. Much the same could be said of the sports reporters, who clearly had covered match play tournaments in the past and were familiar with the rules. However, the standard viewer was left clueless as to the particular rules of the game he was watching, and was not provided much clarity or guidance by the media covering the event. This was particularly troublesome since the primary source of such information – other than an independent research project – for viewers was and typically is the sports media coverage of the event.

Beyond causing annoyance to the viewer, there are larger legal implications in this lack of easy access to the rules. Golf, like most sports, is structured by the rules that govern it. It is, in many ways, analogous to society generally in that it rewards those who play within the rules and punishes those who violate the rules, even when the rules are unknown to the players or when a particular player did not understand the meaning of a rule. Indeed, golf rules are in many ways the embodiment of strict liability at law in that frequently there are no defenses available to the players who have violated a rule.

For viewers as well as players, understanding the rules is essential to understanding the game. Without an understanding of the rules of play, the viewer is left to watch and wonder at what he sees. He is at once a part of the society of viewers and yet is acutely aware that he is not truly integrated into that society because he does not understand its language or its rules. It is at this point that the media’s role changes from the passive conduit of television feed to the active role of interpreter for the viewer. Sports commentators have knowledge and access to information that can make the unknown understandable to viewers. Through the media, the viewer can be educated as to the rules of play and thus watch the events unfolding before him without confusion and as a fully integrated member of society. However, the converse side of the media-viewer relationship in this context is that the withholding of information – or the provision of partial information – can further throw the viewer into a state of confusion. Worse still, the provision of partial information can trick the viewer into thinking that he understands the rules. This is perhaps the most dangerous situation, because it allows the viewer to pass judgment on players without actually perceiving his ignorance.

Thus, the Accenture championship and its coverage by sports media demonstrates the impact of media on individual understanding of and inclusion in a set of rules and norms with which he is otherwise unfamiliar. Although this particular instance related to the world of golf, there are important legal lessons from this example. We see the role of media in controlling access to information that is not otherwise well-known or readily available in society generally. We see the ability of media to control information to make an individual feel or perceive himself to be removed from mainstream society. We see the ability of media to disseminate incomplete information to the public such that members of the viewing public believe they can pass judgments when in reality they do not have all of the relevant information and knowledge of applicable laws and rules needed to make a valid and informed judgment. And we see the potential for the media to provide complete information to the viewer, making the viewer a fully engaged member of the particular society at issue, and able to pass informed judgments. These lessons remind us of the power of the media in understanding rules and laws in a variety of fora, not just the golf course.

Accenture Match Play World Gold Championships, PGA Tour, available at .
Woods Returning Next Week, ESPN.Com, available at .
Match Play, Wikipedia.Com, available at .

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