Take the lane violation by Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant with 2.8 seconds to go and the Irish down by two against Xavier. His teammate Eric Atkinswas at the line for a front end of a one-and-one, and made the first. But then the whistle blew. The free throw was waved off, simply because Grant left his position from beyond the three-point arc too early. Technically it was the correct call. But it deprived Notre Dame of a chance to tie and force overtime, ensuring a loss.
A penalty for an infraction is meant to give the other team restitution. But was that really fair restitution? Berman argues, the offender was unduly penalized in comparison to the minor rebounding advantage he might have gained by starting from beyond the arc too early. “The penalty becomes overcompensatory in absolute terms,” Berman says. Meantime, Xavier received excessive restitution, the huge gift of avoiding overtime.
None of this is meant to argue that refs should overlook contact fouls late in games; some things you can’t let go. Nor does it say there aren’t powerful arguments for calling a game with no variance based on time and score. Purists believe the tighter the rules are enforced, the better the quality of play down the stretch. Also, refs have to make instantaneous decisions in the heat of competition — unlike lawyers and judges, they don’t have weeks to sort out issues of remedy and restitution.
Too much variance can make for chaos; witness the incoherent officiating in the women’s game, which is simply an atrocity, with one game like rugby and another like badminton. Tuesday night a crew awarded Notre Dame’s Natalie Novosel 20 free throws all by herself in a second-round game against Cal. That was two more than Tennessee’s entire team shot in a bruising game of tackle with DePaul the previous night.
But Berman’s application of legal theory gives us a sensible, rational argument for why refs should exercise discretion in regard to time and score when deciding whether to blow the whistle on minor offenses. It’s not just a matter of exploding heads.
The law endorses such a principle in all sorts of ways. We refuse to overturn verdicts in cases in which judges may make a “harmless error” ruling. In cases of civil wrong, we tell people they may sue only for “material breach,” and not for minor breach. When we object to a ref making a minor call that has a major impact late in a game, it’s based, Berman says, on “an aversion to the awarding of windfall remedies disproportionate to the harm suffered.”
For Sally Jenkins’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/jenkins.