Apologies in advance for a mildly depressing, sports-related blog post. Also, the NBA Finals has made me a more cynical skeptic so…be prepared for some skeptical cynicism.
I’ve seen/heard/been among the many people complaining about referees making terrible calls. Responding to those who complain, it is often pointed out that “bad refs/calls are part of the game,” “bad calls go both ways,” or “players determine the game not the referees” (or some combination of the three claims - not to be confused with clams, as those are mollusks). I find all three excuses to be intellectually lazy and borderline irresponsible.
I take the first statement – that bad refs/calls are part of the game – as an attempt to re-locate authority on a value-neutral – and therefore uncontestable – plane. This is at the heart of all three responses to complaining about the referee - that somehow the authority figures shouldn't be analyzed as they are just "part of the game" and should be dealt with rather than questioned, analyzed, and corrected. To carry the analogy to the social sphere, it seems that this excuse is akin to saying “corrupt or inept enforcers/managers/creators of the law are just a part of the way the system works: deal with it” or “unjust application or omission of punishment happens: deal with it.”
The second comment – “bad calls go both ways” – flows from and is, in some senses, a variation of the first. The logic goes that if the refs are missing calls, then it will adversely affect both teams in the same way and the referees are therefore neutral. Beyond another attempt to re-cast authority as value-neutral, this theory fails once it leaves the theoretical plane and enters the game. Yes, both teams can be said to be the victims of bad calls but they don’t affect both teams the same way at any given point in the game and all blown calls aren’t equal (the team behind late in the fourth quarter is affected more by a blown call than they would be in the first quarter). To extend the idea that both teams are victims neutralizes the authority figures in the game and sets up the straw-man base for the third claim that “players determine the game not the referees.”
As stated by the profound contemporary theorist, Lil Wayne, “Players play. Coaches coach. Cheerleaders cheer.” This logic states that in a game, as in life, people have roles to play and they should play them. The role of the referees is to apply an ordered set of rules to a disorderly game where rules are sometimes transgressed. This, again, is an attempt to place the authority figures of the game above reproach (lazy and irresponsible) as well as an attempt to cast the players as the sole determiners of their own fate regardless of their in-game situation. In this scenario, the referees and players are elevated to the theoretical plane (as opposed to being placed within the game) and the players on either team who may feel slighted are, again, told to “deal with it” or “make the play anyway.” This third variation of the argument that “the refs are neutral” is, perhaps, the most irresponsible because it suggests that if the players just play harder then, even if there are unfair circumstances, they can and should be overcome. I don’t think this is the case and I don’t think I need to explicitly draw the social parallel.
To say that the referees determine the outcome of the game, however, is equally lazy, irresponsible, and possibly dangerous in that it denies the players agency and places all power in the game in the hands of the on-court authority figures. No one person or group of people determines the game – and that’s the point – locating all the blame for a loss solely with the refs or all of the accomplishment for a win solely with the team is simplistic, denies the fact that luck and circumstance play a role in the game, and cuts off any form of complex analysis in favor of a more simply summarized result. The three aforementioned excuses simply shift authority from the realm of what is able to be questioned to the value-neutral sphere wherein it is dismissed as "part of the game" and therefore beyond the purview of what might be accepted as rigorous analysis. I firmly believe that it is intellectually lazy and arguably dangerous not to question authority or to make exaggerated claims to discount those who do.
Now some may say that I am overthinking all of this and that my drawing of social parallels is blowing a simple sports game out of proportion. But that is the point and the source of my cynicism: the game itself is a distraction from the sheer volume of capital being exchanged. Cheering for/tweeting about/blogging about a team or a game is a way to pacify the masses by allowing them to pretend that they have a voice and can make a difference and further distract them from the reality of the financial discrepancy between they and those they cheer for, but especially to distract them from those who own and run the organizations. It is a system of inequalities that constantly distracts attention from inequality within a larger system of inequalities that constantly distracts attention from its inequalities and I’m blogging about it.
So it goes.
Thanks for reading.