Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Dustin Johnson and the Fairness of Punishing Him: Lessons from the Law

If you watched the final round of the PGA Championship this past weekend, you probably feel bad for Dustin Johnson. He held a one-shot lead entering the final hole and bogeyed that last hole, leading--so it seemed--to a three-way tie with Bubba Watson and Martin Kaymer.

Losing a lead on the last hole and having to enter into a playoff would probably be disappointing to any golfer. Especially in a championship.

As it turns out, though, Johnson was about to experience a profound and unique kind of disappointment. Instead of entering into a playoff, Johnson received a two-stroke penalty for grounding his club (meaning the club touched the earth behind the ball prior to the swing) in a bunker, which is against PGA rules, though is allowed on most places on a golf course. Johnson, like other golfers, had been briefed on the rules of the course before the tournament and warned that it had many sandy areas which would be considered bunkers. Here is a video of what happened from SI.com:

Ashby Jones of the Wall Street Journal wonders whether the penalty fits the crime, since Johnson's mistake gave him no apparent advantage. Jones interviews me for his story, which is excerpted below:

But is it fair to penalize someone when the rationale behind a rule isn’t triggered? Golfers are prohibited from grounding their clubs in sand traps because such a move could disrupt the lie of the ball — or, by dislodging just a bit of sand, clear the club’s path to the ball ever so slightly.

But in the case of Johnson, it was fairly clear that neither happened. His grounding of the club appeared so slight — it was hard to imagine the move had given him an advantage.

In such a case, should the penalty still be enforced?

Writing at the WSJ, Jason Gay has his doubts: “Instead of a rollicking three-way finish, the 2010 PGA will be remembered for a cold-blooded, by-the-book decision — enforcing the rules of a bunker that nobody outside of a few officials knew was a bunker.”

“It’s an interesting question: what should the PGA do when applying a law when the rationale behind the law isn’t really being promoted?” asked Michael McCann, a sports law expert at Vermont Law School. “Should the PGA start taking appeals?”

In law, said McCann, a sanction can often be reduced post hoc. If you’re given a stop-sign violation for coming to a rolling stop at a deserted intersection, a judge can bump cut your fine in half, let you off with a warning, etc.

But in sports, said McCann, there often isn’t time to take an appeal, especially in this instance, when darkness is settling in and other golfers (not to mention thousands of spectators and millions of television viewers) are waiting for play to continue. “It’s just not practical,” said McCann.

McCann said that that’s why rules in sports are often applied so formalistically — for the sake of efficiency.”It’s the old debate about brightline rules versus flexible standards,” he said. “Neither is perfect. Bright line rules are good for predictability, but sometimes lead to unfair outcomes. More flexible standards can lead to more fair outcomes in some situations, but lack predictability and sometimes efficiency.”

To read the rest, click here. For a couple of good comments from other folks on my Facebook page:
Jordan Ablon: My take is that the PGA did nothing wrong. As bad as the rule may be, it was a rule and he had plenty of notice. He chose not to take 2 minutes to read the rule. It was a MAJOR event and he didn't read the rules of an unusual course.

Marc Isenberg: On the face, the rule is sensible (it was, after all, designed as a bunker) and once it was violated, you knew the PGA was going to mete out "justice" like Inspector Javert. But, if the PGA wanted those bunkers to be treated as such, then the galleries should not have been allowed in the "field of play." For four straight days, until the 72nd hole of a major championship, the PGA did not do their job. This was entrapment. Literally (bunkers = traps, for those who don't follow golf).