Last night, I went to the men’s basketball game against Indiana. I had an amazing time, and we won! Attending the game with friends itself was really fun, but contemplating the environment and the rules and laws that governed the game proved a fascinating exercise. Within the walls of the stadium, there are many interesting patterns of human behavior and governance at work such as the system of laws, the assignment of authority to enforce these laws, and even the very definition of a law.
Societies tend to write laws in order to govern and control human behavior with some idea of a happy and beneficial society as the ultimate goal. Societies differ depending on the individuals within that societies’ conception of a happy life (though one can also argue that the basis of each law is morality and that morality is universal because it is derived from an objective standpoint). Basketball, however, exists by virtue of the rules that create it. A player’s objective is to score points (and of course have fun and entertain) so that his team can win. Winning, however, requires uniformity of conduct within each game. The only way a Big Ten champion can be declared is if each game that led to the finals followed the same rules of conduct on the court; otherwise the players are playing different games and cannot be in competition with one another.
One line of argument posits that laws exist only insofar as they are enforced or adhered to. Thus, each society needs not only law writers and authors, but also enforcers and implementers. A police officer writes a ticket when you exceed the speed limit. A judge orders you to court when you refuse to pay the fine. And the police physically drag you to prison when you refuse the court order. But laws are not only enforced by threats and the power to force behavior. Individuals do not sign record deals, but laws make it possible to profit from one’s musical talents. Even so, positive laws that create opportunities (such as pursuing a music career) rather than limit behavior (such as driving really fast) need an authority to enforce the law. Such an individual at a basketball game is endowed with the authority by the players and official rule makers to evict players for disorderly conduct and identify the team in possession of the ball after it tumbles out of bounds. The referees must however interpret human behavior in order to determine if a law has been broken. During the game, when fans disagreed with the ruling on the court, they can yell their disapproval to the ref, which often resulted in a review of the play on the TV screen. Refs can be dismissed from refereeing because they make poor calls, or interpret the acts of the game incorrectly in conjunction with the rules of the game.
Society does not enforce certain ambiguous realms of behavior, such as requiring citizens to act virtuously or not act rudely. Rather, it can only encourage virtuous behaviors themselves or outlaw specific acts of rudeness. Similarly, during the basketball game, players found ways of manipulating the situation to their advantage, such as by falling down on the ground to make it look like they were pushed. One really remarkable example is that apparently during the last couple minutes of the game, the winning team will hold onto the ball carefully, so as not to score but also not to let the losing team score. In order to prevent time from running out on the clock, the losing team tries to foul the ball holder. In order to benefit from this situation, the winning team gives their best free shot thrower the possession of the ball the most during the last couple minutes of the game. So, within the rules of the game, the players have managed to develop a strategy consisting of a behavioral loop that maximizes their objectives. This behavior is not demanded, but nor is it not forbidden. This describes the way most of us live our lives: behaving in ways we choose as long as it isn’t disallowed. But at the same time, I can’t help but wonder: is refraining from acting a certain way a form of demanding that I do act a certain way? Just as the basketball player cannot “travel” with the ball, is this not the same thing as requiring that he dribble it?
By: Naomi Scheinerman
(Image by Tennessee Journalist under a Creative Commons license.)