Sunday, September 13, 2009

Deterring misconduct

Rules are ubiquitous and inescapable. This is what Serena Williams discovered in her semi-final match against opponent Kim Clijsters.

Trailing in what turned out to the final game of the second set, Williams was serving when she committed what the line judge determined to be a foot fault (and because this immediately followed a previous serving fault), she lost the point. This brought the score to 15-40 and match point for Clijsters. Williams argued with the line judge and then returned to the line to serve. However, she returned back to apparently express a few more words to the line judge. This entailed shaking the ball in the judge's face and apparently threatening her.

As reported in the New York Times:

Reporters who were courtside said that Williams approached the line judge and they heard Williams shout profanity at her. Holding a ball, Williams said to the lineswoman that “you don’t know me,” appearing to inject it with profanity. Then Williams added that the linewoman was lucky that Williams was not, according to The Miami Herald, “shoving this ball down your throat.”
After this altercation, the Chair Umpire called the line judge over to her chair to disclose what just transpired. The Chair Umpire then determined that Williams would be assessed a one point penalty for a code violation - "unsportsmanlike conduct". This ultimately resulted in Williams losing the final point of the game and finally the match to Clijsters.

What we observe (as if it weren't evident already) is that different institutions and entities within civil society have applicable rules for human conduct and modes of enforcement over whom they have jurisdiction. While most people don't attend court proceedings, many are often spectators and witnesses at popular cultural and sporting events such as tennis and hockey. Spectators witness how "disputes" are adjudicated by "parties" to the game - in the case of Williams-Clijsters match, enforcement of the rules can lead to an anti-climactic result in an otherwise entertaining and dynamic match.

The dispute that took place at the end of the Williams-Clijsters match was particularly interesting from the point of view of the application of the rules to player conduct. Normally, if there is a dispute in tennis about a technical violation and a judge's call on the violation, there is recourse to technical assistance - i.e. computer-generated reconstructions to assess whether the ball was in or out. Here, there was a dispute over what Williams actually said to the line judge. In ruling against Williams, the Chief Umpire opted to believe the line judge's account about what it was that Williams said. Williams could be overheard imploring the umpire that she didn't threaten the line judge's life. The Chief Umpire's decision to positively view the line judge's credibility was probably helped by the threatening gestures Williams had made toward the latter as she was threatening her (not to mention a reputation for losing her cool on the tennis court).

The episode demonstrates the speed at which justice can (and probably needs to) be dispensed at a live sporting event and the serious consequences for a top-seeded player - both with respect to winnings that can be potentially earned and the prestige to be gained from winning the US Open. As in all systems, some rules are designed to encourage or discourage certain types of conduct - for example rules punishing unsportsmanlike conduct. Whether this will ultimately deter Williams or other players with anger management issues, time will tell. But for now it seems to illustrate that tennis has a type of legal system in operation and it is enforced in such a way as to fell one of its foremost athletes at a critical moment of a match.

No comments: