KK Tribute: Sports and the Utopia of Rules
This one is from Lampoon


David Graeber, an anthropologist who teaches at the London School of Economics, wrote a book called “The Utopia of Rules, On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy”

In it, he makes some interesting observations about the nature of games, which are especially applicable to organized sports, and why we like them so much.

He notes that games are clearly bounded in time & space and thereby framed off from ordinary life. There is a field, a board, a starting pistol, a finish line.

Within that time/space, certain people are designated as players. There are also rules which define precisely what those players can and cannot do.

There is always a clear idea of the goals/stakes, of what the players have to do to win the game.

Any place, person, action, that falls outside that framework is extraneous. Games are pure ruled-governed actions, and Graeber thinks this is precisely why games are fun.

Graeber points out that in almost every other aspect of human existence – in real life – all these things are ambiguous. Think of a family quarrel or a workplace rivalry. Who is or who is not a party to it, what’s fair, when it began & when it’s over, what it even means to say you’ve won: it’s all extremely difficult to say.

In real life, the hardest thing of all is to understand the rules.

Of course, there are rules everywhere in real life, even in casual conversation. These rules are rarely explicit. Furthermore, the goals and the stakes are often not clear.  And the ethics or morals that might guide one’s behavior often conflict with each other in a zero-sum way (think justice vs mercy, or liberty vs equality). So we are always doing the difficult work of negotiating between all these ambiguous and often conflicting rules and morals, and trying to predict how others will do the same.

Games allow us our only real experience of a situation where all this ambiguity is in theory swept away. Everyone knows exactly what the rules are. And not only that, people actually do follow them. And by following them it is even possible to win. This, along with the fact that unlike in real life, one has submitted oneself to the rules completely voluntarily, is the source of the pleasure.

According to Graeber, games are a kind of utopia of rules.

Graeber’s insight got me thinking about the enforcers of rules in games – the referees, umpires, and commissioners – and why it is so maddening when the ump calls a ball when it was an obvious strike, or a football referee misses a pass interference call that even nearsighted Mr. Magoo would have seen. Their mistakes infect the game with ambiguity and needlessly ruin the pleasure that certainty by rule gives us.

Technology has made the situation much worse. Instant frame by frame replay and pitch tracking reveal horrible calls that we might otherwise have overlooked, or not thought so badly of, and then rubs our noses in it.

As for me, a quintessentially casual fan, I have always disliked replay. I oppose automating calling balls and strikes. I like the quirky aspect of human error and dislike the interruption of the flow of the game. Perfection is unobtainable – how many times has replay failed to resolve the play call, or resulted in a call that still seems wrong? Football is the worst in this regard.

Utopia is just as an illusory and unobtainable goal in sports as it is in real life. The more we try to wall off sports from real life to achieve perfection, a utopia of rules, the more we will degrade the many other aspects that make sports so enjoyable, at least in my opinion.


Worth it or not worth it?





The idea that we can live in that world, and tweak the atmospheric conditions to further the stability of the conditions, is intoxicating.  But not without its problems.


  I wouldn't be so opposed to continuing with umpires making all the calls.  As a much less casual fan I've gotten tired of the strike zone inconsistencies within games.  It's common to see inequality in calling zones in baseball that goes beyond what errors of perception would cover.  Bias in the calling even adversely affected the 2001 Mariners in the playoffs. 

That people show favoritism in real life situations to me does not mean that we should protect it's continuance in every competition that could otherwise work towards mitigating unfairness or striving for impartiality.  I think the goal is to approach impartiality even in real life.  I realize it's not ever going to completely get there, since prejudice is a flaw and humans have flaws.  But the goal of sports isn't to perfectly simulate real life either, only more metaphorically.

I'd rather the calls were made correctly to the best of the callers ability.  Enabling them to get more of them correct doesn't even have to involve game stoppage.  Automated balls and strikes in my opinion could involve 3 color LEDs in the masks of the home plate umpires.  Red, Yellow and Green, with yellow being borderline that leaves the human element in play for those who prefer it.  Some would prefer that to be simply red or green, binary,  right-or-wrong.  I'd be ok with that as well.  I'm no longer OK with everchanging zones.  To me it's akin to having sidelines move around arbitrarily in other sports.  There's no push to establish that happening that I've ever heard.  Even though ever-changing goals would better mirror life. 


I'm with Al Davis on this one. 





In this case "it" is providing immediate, automated strike zone information to a human ump as a first step in a process that, depending on how it plays out, could end with a completely automated ball/strike system or staying with an advisory system for human ump. If the latter, you would have to increasingly ratchet up the penalty for umps who are showing a notable tendency (compared to their peers) to override the advisory system.

Initially I like the idea of lights, but on reflection it might distract the ump visually from making calls that are needed in real time. Perhaps differing audio beeps would be best, but I imagine a loud stadium might at times make it impossible for the ump to hear those beeps. Not sure what the answer is for these problems, but the chaos of complete control by human umps is the bigger problem.

Experiment in the minor leagues with what means of communication is best.


But certainly trials and tests would have to be done first.  It certainly shouldn't block the umps view and shouldn't need to be on except for a second or 2 after a ball has passed the plate. 


I understand a drive to perfect the appoication of the rules (called strikes) within the context of baseball, but most of all I love this idea that sports is the place where everyone agrees to the same rules when they step out on the field.

Maybe it's just because I'm getting old, but it seems to me that less and less is there agreement on the 'rules' of life and living and interacting.  

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