Friday, December 22, 2006

Exploiting the Rules

I was reading the Sports Illustrated Year in Review edition (which thankfully did not name "you" as Sportsman of the Year), and in the college football section, they referred to this episode as "brilliant." It may be brilliant, but it's awful sportsmanship.

To recap, in an attempt to speed up the game, they put in a rule this year that on kick-offs, the clock starts when the ball is kicked rather than when the receiving team touches it. (I don't recall many complaints that college football games took too long, or that logging the time when a kick-off is in flight would have that great an impact, but whatever...)

Anyway, in a game against Penn State, Wisoncsin scores a touchdown with 30 seconds left in the half, then purposely jumps offside twice on kickoffs to burn that time off the clock.

And for this, the Wisconsin coaches are lauded as "brilliant."

But what does such a strategy have to do with determining who was the better football team that day?

I understand that strategy and gamesmanship are part of sports, and people exploit oddities in the rules all the time. The four corners offense, calling time-out when falling out of bounds (or throwing the ball off an opponents leg), or even fouling a player who an uncontested lay-up or giving an intentional walk to a great hitter are all ways of turning a contest from an athletic competition into a contest of who can use the rules to his greatest advantage. And, of course, the end of any close basketball game includes the trailing team commiting fouls when the opposing team has the ball to force them to make free throws.

But I wonder what impact the celebration of these "clever" strategies has on the culture.

For example, I am pro-life. Since Roe vs. Wade, the pro-life movement has had an almost single-minded obsession with overturning it. This entails electing presidents who would nominate judges inclined to overturn the decision, and get them confirmed by the Senate.

Since many Senators could not vote to confirm a justice they know would overturn the decision, this involves an odd dance where the nominees try to reveal as little as possible.

During the Harriet Miers debate, some conservative commentators thought she was a good "stealth" nominee. -- she didn't have a paper trail of opposition to Roe, so maybe she could be confirmed. (My thoughts at the time on that are here).

Then there was the "nuclear option" -- it turns out we could change the rules of the Senate so that fillibusters could be ended with a simple majority vote. Why not do that to get some of these justices confirmed?

No and No.

I do not dispute the necessity of overturning Roe. In addition to the abortions themselves, I feel it has coarsened our culture, and poisoned our politics. It cannot end soon enough.

But it must be defeated squarely and fairly, not by sneaking through "stealth" nominees, or exploting undiscovered loopholes in the Senate rules. A victory won that way would not be a victory at all. It would not prove that we had the superior arguments, any more than if Wisonsin winning by their little stunt would prove they were the superior football team.

We need to commit to not take short-cuts, to do the hard work of persuasion and cultural transformation to win public debates, rather than think we can be more clever at manipulating the intricacies of the political system.
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