Thursday, January 28, 2010

On Judging, Race and the Game of Basketball

I was at a girls high school basketball game last week when the most amazing thing happened. It was a game between my local high school, middle class and predominantly white, and a high school from Indianapolis, which happens to be predominantly black. The teams reflected their schools' student bodies and were mirror images of one another. The local team only had two black players, and the visiting Indianapolis team had only one white player. Their respective fans at the game were mirror images as well.

This game helped me understand many things, most notably the Ricci firefighters case, the Supreme Court's continued attacks on the use of race in public life, and even the recent Citizens United case.

However indirectly, this game is the reason the Voting Rights Act will not be among us much longer.

The game began uneventfully and remained so for some time. Over the span of a few short minutes, however, the complexion of the game changed and the Indianapolis team surged to a double-digit lead. One player in particular was clearly the best player on the floor. She could do anything she wanted. The game seemed over, and this was only the second quarter.

Then the tide changed, and it was then when things got curious.

Things got chippy, play tightened, and the local team began to chip away at the lead. What had been a 15 point lead became 9, then 5, and towards the end of the fourth quarter the game was close once again. I could give away one punch line, as it appeared in the local paper the next day. To paraphrase: the local girls high school team played with guts and great courage, hung in there, and ultimately won a hard-fought battle.

Or I could give you an alternative reality, the one deeply felt by the players and fans from the visiting team.

Go back to that time in the game when the visiting team held a double-digit lead. From that moment forward, there is no question that the complexion of the game changed. I wish I could say that one team began playing harder than the other. What I saw, and what fans from the visiting team saw as well, was a number of calls by the referees go against the Indianapolis team. Not just a few calls, mind you, but just about every close call. Whether a foul, a walking violation, or who knocked the ball out of bounds, the calls went largely to the home team.

I happened to be sitting close to a man who had traveled all the way from Indianapolis to watch the game. He was neither happy nor afraid to show it. He was clearly frustrated, at one point yelling "let us compete;" at another, "you're not letting us play!" But he was not alone. The coaches soon showed their frustration as well, and so did the players. The star player never stopped playing, mind you, but by the end of the game, you could see that her demeanor changed. She was still smiling, but it was not a confident, assertive smile. By then, it was more of an incredulous smile. She knew she was beat and there was nothing she could do to stop it. As for the fan, the last straw came with 20 seconds left, when the refs called a phantom traveling violation on the Indianapolis team. The man got up from the bleachers, mumbled some choice words, and stormed off.

This game offered alternative realities. From the same set of facts, one side rejoiced in their hard-fought victory, the other left angry and feeling cheated. The fans and players saw and experienced completely different games. If asked, both sides would argue the other side is crazy for feeling the way they did.

In the end, there was only one reality that mattered: the referees'. They made the calls, disputed or not, and there was no way to appeal them.

Now, I don't think they were biased, at least not overtly. They did happen to be white, all three of them, and most of their calls did happen to go against the Indianapolis team. But by most objective markers, something was awry (at one point, for example, the foul differential was 7 fouls to 1). One side felt it deeply; the other was indifferent, maybe incredulous.

I could not help but think of Chief Justice Roberts' balls and strikes analogy during his confirmation hearings (he would only call cases as he saw them, no differently than calling balls and strikes). If only judging were that simple.

More troubling still, what to do when our realities differ as markedly as they sometimes do, and often along racial lines?