Rogers Hornsby, Sports, and Political Obligation

Contemporary political philosophers like to analogize political society to a game. Each of us is trying to achieve some objective, whether individually or jointly, and government acts to establish and regulate the rules according to a principle of “fair play.” The rules tell us what actions we can and cannot take in pursuing our goals, and government officials, like referees, identify infractions, resolve disagreements about when an infraction has occurred, and sanction rule-breakers.

This idealized model of government has a lot to recommend it. One feature of games that’s often overlooked, however, is that they have unwritten rules of fair play that complement formal rules. In some cases, “fair play” or the “code” can actually contradict the written rules of sport. For example, star athletes often enjoy greater freedom under the formal rules than others do. A famous but possibly apocryphal instance, reported by Mike Munger in an EconTalk interview, involves Rogers Hornsby, one of the great hitters in the history of baseball. Hornsby’s average reflected the fact that he swung almost always at strikes. A rookie pitcher facing Hornsby threw to the outside corner of the strike zone, which Hornsby took and the umpire ruled a ball. The pitcher protested, at which point the umpire stepped out behind the plate, took off his mask, and instructed the pitcher, “Young man, when you throw a strike, Mr. Hornsby will let you know.”

What’s remarkable about this story is that the umpire almost cedes his authority to Hornsby to call balls and strikes. The real rule is that the the star determines what’s called. This doesn’t mean that the umpire has ceased to be the umpire in this case. If the umpire were to have called the rookie’s pitch to the outside corner a strike, it would authoritatively be a strike. Nevertheless, there’s a sense in which the rules of fair play have “trumped” the official, public rules of play here. The special rule for Hornsby reflects a widely held belief by players and managers, which guide the umpire’s decision to let Hornsby call his own pitches.

Sports, then, have two sources of rules–one, the publicly announced rules enforced by the officials, and the implicit code of fair play enforced by players. The trouble is that this picture of sports, or games more generally, defies the simple picture of what it is to play a game–to play according to a set of rules, which one regards as authoritative. Instead, informal rules of fair play seem to undermine the authoritative nature of the rules of sport. The worry is that if players were primarily obligated and motivated by rules of fair play, the game would cease to be regulated by public rules and devolve into anarchy.

Official and informal rules, however, both serve to instantiate norms of fair play. Informal rules often lower the transactions costs of enforcing fair play norms, or improve the quality of the game by incorporating more knowledge into the game’s rules. So we don’t want to say that informal rules should never give us reasons for action.

David Papineau suggests that the interaction between the official rules and the rules of fair play goes like this: players need to respect the rules and defer to them when they are enforced by officials, but otherwise they aren’t obligated to obey the rules as such. Instead, they’re obligated to comply with norms of fair play that may sometimes involve violating the formal rules.

Sometimes this distinction is phrased in terms of legitimacy versus authority. Officials, and their political analogues, have the power to enforce the formal rules and exclude others from enforcing the rules. Officials with this power are said to have legitimacy. But officials don’t have authority–the power to create obligations and duties for players to obey them. Instead, players have duties to obey the rules of fair play, which the formal rules often but not always instantiate.

A final point about the interaction between the official rules and fair play. When we say an athlete ought be sanctioned or punished for violating the official rules, but his actions nonetheless conformed with the practice of fair play, we’re often inclined not to blame the athlete in question. Many cyclists convicted of doping used drugs in order to level the playing field and in conformity with fair play rather than to gain an unfair advantage over their opponents. “Blameless wrongdoing,” however, seems to presuppose the absence of a duty to obey the rules of sport as such. If there were such an obligation, we’d be apt to blame athletes for violating their duty to obey the rules.