When an athlete disputes a referee’s call, it’s usually a minor matter, mostly of interest to devoted fans. But when Serena Williams yelled at chair umpire Carlos Ramos at the U.S. Open on Sept. 8, and later broke her racquet in frustration, it became a matter of intense national interest as soon as she lost the final to Naomi Osaka.
Williams’s outburst drew wide criticism, but so did the ref. Her defenders didn’t try to argue that Williams hadn’t broken the rules, because she obviously had. Instead they pointed out how arbitrarily those rules are often applied.
Lots of players receive coaching from the stands, Williams’s defenders said. Few of them get called on it, as she was, triggering the outraged reaction that ultimately cost her a one-game penalty she couldn’t afford, in a match she was already losing. Tennis matches are supposed to be won by skill, not the misfortune of who caught the eye of a sticklerish ref.
Williams’s defenders are right, of course. We say things like “those are the rules” and “that’s the law,” but formal rules are a bit like an iceberg: The written directives are only a small percentage of what actually goes into making “the rules” and “the law.” The rest is found in interpretation and discretion.
For example, speeding is illegal. But if a traffic cop pulls over a driver, and the driver points to a woman in labor in the passenger seat, we all expect the officer to provide a siren-and-flashing-lights escort to the hospital, not a speeding ticket.
But let’s say nobody’s pregnant in a car that’s going only 1 mph over the limit. In theory, the police are entitled to issue a ticket. But in practice, people know that they won’t. And if a cop does write you up for such a paltry violation, you’ll feel, justifiably, that something unfair has happened.
As Marc M. Howard, a professor of government and law at Georgetown University, pointed out in these pages on Sept. 11, such legal disparities are among the issues animating Black Lives Matter: that minorities are subject to unequal enforcement of nominally impartial rules. And given Williams’s race, it’s natural to wonder whether that sort of bias didn’t play a role at the U.S. Open.
Coincidentally, as the Internet was debating l’affaire Williams, another dispute broke out on social media: Ian Millhiser of ThinkProgress wrote an article headlined “Brett Kavanaugh said he would kill Roe v. Wade last week and almost no one noticed.” The conservative Weekly Standard, which serves as one of Facebook’s fact-checkers, flagged this as false. Facebook labeled the article accordingly. And left-wing journalists erupted.
“Facebook should not let conservative editors police liberal outlets’ analysis under the guise of fact-checking,” thundered Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern. It was a measured response compared with many of the sputtering complaints collected by William Saletan, also at Slate. The gist was that Facebook had allowed a malevolent fox to guard its ostensibly neutral henhouse.
But as Saletan notes, Judge Kavanaugh actually hadn’t said that he would overturn Roe v. Wade. Millhiser was just arguing that this was the logical implication of some of Kavanaugh’s other remarks. As a journalistic matter, the Weekly Standard’s call was completely justified, and ThinkProgress should have changed the headline, which would have lifted Facebook’s sanction. Instead, the site doubled down by attacking the ref.
But in defense of Team ThinkProgress, people do use “said” more broadly in conversation. So it feels overly meticulous to insist that anything but the narrow definition constitutes an outright falsehood. In other words, it feels correct — but unfair. That naturally prompts people to scrutinize the refs for bad motives. Or at least for the natural human tendency to apply higher standards to your opponents than you do to your friends.
Funnily enough, that’s exactly why conservatives complain about the steady leftward drift of academia and media, who referee most of today’s disputes. Many conservatives concede that these institutions do at least try to stick to the truth, but note that “the truth,” like “the rules,” isn’t written in black and white. It involves adjudicating a lot of close calls. And somehow those calls usually seem to go against conservatives.
People to the left of conservatives have mostly rolled their eyes at these complaints as coming from a bunch of crybabies who need excuses for their inability to play in the big leagues.
Which is why the past week was so instructive all around. It turns out that when you like the player, it’s pretty clear why a hostile ref is a problem. And that the folks who have been trumpeting the majestic impartiality of rules are just as tempted to throw a tantrum when they’re subjected to a ref who seems to be playing for the other side.