The controversy over Serena Williams at this year’s US Open was an argument waiting to happen – not because Serena was playing but because there is a natural tension inherent in all sporting rules
Serena Williams’ outburst at the US Open final last week touched some extremely raw nerves. Sexism and racism are incendiary topics in sport and in life. But the controversy was also about something else entirely. It was all about what you think the rules in sport are there to do.
“In the philosophy of sport, there are three central types of approaches,” says John William Devine, Lecturer in Sports Ethics and Integrity at the University of Swansea.
“There are the formalists who think sport is constituted by the rules and that nothing is more important. So it’s the ref’s job to enforce the rules and if they don’t they are not playing the sport, they are doing something else.
Then there are the conventionalists. They say the formalists are too strict and they don’t give adequate consideration to the fact that non-rule based norms are also to be followed. So for example in football, if a player goes down injured it is absolutely expected that the ball is kicked out of play. There is no rule which says so, but it is the convention that is adhered to.
The third category are the broad internalists. What they care about are the skills and capabilities of players and the values which underlie the rules. They say the rules present challenges, hurdles and obstacles which can be overcome only by displaying certain kinds of excellence".”
Devine would put himself in the third camp and this week wrote a piece in The Conversation about how one of the values we admire is self-reliance which is why, in his view, on-court coaching should not be allowed.
Given the different approaches, it is easy to see how sparks fly when a formalist like umpire Carlos Ramos comes up against a conventionalist like Serena Williams. He sticks to his rule book; she says the conventions should be taken into account.
Here at Local Tennis Leagues we wrestle with these approaches all the time (even if we had not previously known what they were called!).
So, for example, we give bonus points in recognition of effort spent in getting matches played. We think it’s part of the process of our type of league and something we value. Formalists don’t! They can and do call us out on this - though fortunately we do not have to do battle on national tv.
“With formalists like Ramos you know what you are going to get. If you break a rule, you are going to get a violation,” says Devine. “It’s commonplace in rugby for players to research the ref and to adjust their style of play according to his interpretation of the rules. Serena would have done her due diligence and known Ramos was a strict formalist.”
What then can a governing body like the USTA do, tasked as it is with running an event of the size and prestige of the US Open?
“All the USTA can do is lay down the rules like a state lays down the law,” says Devine. “Many people actually think of sport as a legal system. In the philosophy of law, you also have formalists who look at what is written on the page, and broad internalists who look to serve natural justice.” Among umpires, the views may never converge. “It all depends what their philosophy of sport is.”
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