My nephew Robert, a thoughtful and enthusiastic basketball player, raised the issue of players who intentionally break the rules out of sight of the referees and then say, “It ain’t a foul if the ref doesn’t call it.” Aren’t such players acting immorally and cheating? he asks.
I took the bait and responded to his Facebook posting. We’ve had a lengthy exchange of views. Robert gives a lot of weight to a player’s intention and sense of fairness. I see non-pickup basketball more as a contract in which players agree to accept the refs’ decisions and penalties. The dark areas beyond the refs’ sight are a moral jungle where right, wrong and cheating are murky concepts.
Just the other night, I visited this moral jungle while playing in a B league game at the Capital Athletic Club in Sacramento. I helped double-team an opponent who was going up for a shot near the basket. I contributed a deliberate forearm shove to his side, knowing I could be called for a foul but confident that I would get away with it. The player missed his shot, and no foul was called.
Was this cheating? I don’t think so. I prefer to see it as an appropriate response to the roughness allowed by the refs in this game. They were either interpreting the contact rules loosely or missing a lot. I had been whacked on the arm earlier and lost the ball. If I didn’t respond in kind, I would be hurting my team and putting my teammates at a disadvantage. Would that be that fair?
Referees have a lot of latitude in how they call a game. Some call things tight to ward off rough play; others believe in “letting the players play,” especially at crunch time. Players have to figure out how a game is being called. What some may call cheating, others would see as a testing of the rules.
As far as I can tell, a player’s state of mind doesn’t matter. A deliberate bump to a shooter’s elbow is penalized the same as an inadvertent bump. Even the intentionality of an “intentional” foul is decided by the refs.
While good sportsmanship gets a lot of lip service, players are given limited opportunity to display it. For example, a player in an official game can’t call a foul on himself, as happens in pickup ball. If he knows the refs blew the call, he can’t get it reversed by taking the blame. And for sure, players can’t call a foul on an opponent and expect the refs to accept it.
In a world in which right and wrong are determined by the subjective judgment of the refs, how much moral agency can be laid on the shoulders of the players?