On gaming the game

A fan-made video highlighting flagrant fouls on Charlotte Hornets guard Jeremy Lin has been going viral in the U.S., Taiwan, and Hong Kong. From a New York Times article on the video, which you can watch for yourself below:

Piecing together clips of Lin being whacked in the face, clotheslined, bleeding, tumbling to the floor — all without ever drawing a flagrant foul — Kuei tried to convey that Lin, an American-born son of immigrants from Taiwan, was the victim of excessive physicality from opponents and insufficient protection from the league and its referees.

[…]

With its bruising simplicity, it revived questions about the fairness and consistency of officiating in the N.B.A. and led to conversations about latent racial biases. 

Fans of Lin, especially among the Asian community, have interpreted the video as evidence that Lin is being treated unfairly because of his race. I haven’t watched enough of the NBA to know whether this is true, though there does seem to be a pattern of referees not calling fouls on Lin in cases that are pretty clear-cut. Moreover, in the Times article, ESPN reporter Tom Haberstroh notes that “the 813 fouls that Lin had drawn over the past three seasons represented the highest total for a guard — and the third highest number for any position — without a flagrant foul, a particularly hard foul that can lead to an ejection.”

The video raises some interesting questions about buck-passing in unfair games. Suppose his race is a factor, due to referees’ explicit or implicit racial bias. Then, suppose opponents know referees won’t call fouls on them if they overstep their boundaries with Lin, so they take advantage of this fact to play more aggressively with him. This form of gaming the system would seem unsportsmanlike in most contexts, but part of professional sports (if not other leagues) is that playing to win is the dominant, and often overriding, motive for players. Playing to win often requires playing the refs. This is as much a part of the game as any official rule-bound move. For example, the practice of diving in professional soccer is the new normal.

In this context, I’m not sure if players would be wrong to shrug their shoulders and say “Blame the system” while clocking Lin in the face. But compare this to the question of individual responsibility for collectively caused racial problems in everyday life. Surely there’d be something seriously wrong there about passing the buck to “the system” when one could just refuse to play by the rules of an unfair game.

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