October 27, 2011

All’s Fair in Love and Basketball

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Here’s the best scene from the movie.  It’s an impromptu game of one-on-one strip basketball in a college dorm room.  Boyfriend and girlfriend, both division-one athletes, are playing against each other with a toy ball and mini-hoop.  Both are losing articles of clothing, but Monica (Sanaa Lathan) is in the process of winning.  Monica is beating her boyfriend, the university’s star point guard, Quincy (Omar Epps).  She steals the ball from him and utters the film’s marquee line: “All’s fair in love and basketball, baby.”

Is all fair in love and in basketball? They don’t teach much about love or basketball in law school.  They do teach a lot about “fair.” Law students learn fairness and justice defined as achieving the right result. We learn about applying the first- or second-best rules, doctrines and interpretations. We learn about exacting change on systemic, adversarial and individual levels. But we don’t learn much about fairness in a communitarian sense, and we don’t often learn about fairness in the context of either love or basketball.

Love & Basketball (New Line, 2000) is one of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen — and I’ll tell you why. It was the first movie that I saw in theatres with more black characters than white characters and more female athletes than male athletes. It was the first movie I saw that celebrated a female jock, not the prissy toe-pick kind of female athlete. It’s the only movie/filmed content I’ve ever seen in which Tyra Banks actually looks beautiful and her performance is naturalistic. And, most importantly, this movie is great because it makes viewers think about fairness.

Does fair mean abiding by rules? Or, does fair mean “anything goes?”  And, if something comes to be decided as fair between two entities — between two teams, or between two people dating each other, or between adversaries in a legal setting — does that mean the decision is also fair for those not playing the game?  Between two, someone wins and someone loses.  Or between two, a compromise or agreement is made. Fine. But what about everyone else?

As of this writing, the NBA and its Players Association are engaged in a lockout. Their labor negotiations don’t look a whole lot different than those that preceded the current NFL season. But the lengthy NBA negotiations have canceled season games and shuttered stadium doors. An optimist, generally, I am confident that the two parties will achieve a new collective bargaining agreement that both sides will deem to be more or less fair. But the structure of these labor negotiations simply does not account for the NBA community writ large.

NBA trainers and physical therapists are jobless; office support staff for the teams are not at their desks; personnel at the stadiums cannot provide their services and hawk their goods; restaurants catering to game night patrons are not turning tables; Penn Station, conduit to Madison Square Garden, is seedier than ever; families who rely on steady income from the NBA to fund medical and educational needs, for example, are struggling. Yes, Amar’e and Melo were really looking forward to Knicks opening night at MSG. (I was too.) But other people were looking forward to it more.

Maybe not in one-on-one pick-up sports, and maybe not in young courtship, but in many legal disputes there are affected third, fourth, fifth, etc., parties who matter. Oftentimes, even when all’s fair for two, all’s not fair for segments of the community whose interests are impacted but unrepresented. Law students should be taught to better account for the parties who are not privy to transactions and disputes — and I credit Prof. Gregory Alexander and his theory of communitarian property and social obligation for making me focus on this recently. His is much more than a utilitarian, market-based, eating-externalities idea. Alexander argues that because individuals are irreducibly dependent on each other, they have “an obligation to participate in and support the social networks and structures” that enable others to develop, to assert needs, and to pursue their interests and make choices.

Being noticed has its pluses and minuses, but being overlooked and left-out is — sometimes — morally objectionable. This is another reason why Love & Basketball is one of my favorite movies.  Monica’s college coach finally offers her a starting position on the team’s lineup.  Monica cannot believe it because the coach had been criticizing her so vociferously during practices. Monica says haltingly: “I just … it seems like you’re always riding me.” And her coach replies: “You think I’d go hoarse for a player with no potential? When I ignore you … then you worry.” We should worry about those who are ignored here. In the NBA lockout, we should worry about the non-parties to the labor dispute who need the season. And in the law generally, we should worry about legal principles and practices that do not contemplate broader, relational and community-oriented fairness.

Sarah Hack is a third-year Cornell Law student, and helps run the Cornell Journal of Law & Public Policy blog, www.jlpp.org. She may be reached at srh92@cornell.edu. Barely Legal appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Sarah Hack