Monday, July 07, 2014

The Criminology of Baseball

Something I always highlight in teaching criminal justice courses is the fact that our criminal justice system (cjs), best summed up by Bill Bragg, is "not a court of justice but a court of law."The point being not so much that our cjs is a place where the pigs don't ever give anyone a break, but instead the less politically-loaded truth that courts are not a place where all involved seek the truth of a situation so that justice may be most effectively delivered, but is actually a place where two parties fight within the narrow confines of our myriad laws to get the best result as they define it (e.g. longer sentence for prosecution, shorter for defense). The grand point being, as I often explain to my students, having the truth on one's side in a criminal case is nice, but it's far from the most important factor in deciding criminal cases. If given the choice between being empirically innocent and having a really good lawyer, chose the lawyer every single time.

Sports are a great venue for demonstrating this principle, as the rules systems of most major sports are clearly modeled upon (and generally follow the logic of) our criminal justice system. But unlike our criminal justice system, we typically have video of the incident in question, often from a multitude of angles. As such, we typically know what actually happened (unlike in criminal cases in the real world). And yet, much like in our actual cjs, what actually happened is less important than how the rules set up to govern the process say the claim must be resolved.

Take this play from last week's As/Blue Jays game. The link has both a description of the play, and more importantly, video of it, so I highly recommend you go look at that. For those too lazy, here's a quick summation (for those who don't follow sports, skip this paragraph): the situation was the As had the bases loaded when their batter hit the ball to the first baseman. The Blue Jays first baseman fields the ball and attempts to tag the runner moving to second. The ump signals that he has missed the tag, so he throws home for the force out. Importantly, the catcher doesn't bother tagging the runner coming home, because it's a force play, so no tag is necessary. He clearly had plenty of time to make a tag, as the runner was still several feet away, but again, it wasn't necessary since in the video you can clearly see the catcher watching the first base ump signal the tag was not made.

The As manager then appealed the call at first base, and video replay shows the tag was indeed made. This means the play at home was no longer a force out and the runner should have been tagged, meaning he is now safe at home and has scored a run. The fact that had the first base ump made the correct call in real time would have left the catcher with more than enough time to make the tag is meaningless according to the rules.

This play is a great example of how our courts and greater cjs work entirely -- what actually happened is less important than how well one is able to argue in the confines of the rules. Logic, even that which all parties agree with (no one alive would dispute the catcher would have easily made the tag had he known he was supposed to) doesn't matter at all. Because the rules, for better or worse, leave no room for simply making a logical judgement call. So even though everyone knows the play would have ended with the runner at home being tagged out had the runner going from first to second been ruled out on the field, this is inadmissible evidence under the current rules.

None of this is to say our current structure of criminal justice rules (or sports rules for that matter) is necessarily good or bad, just to make the empirical observation that what happens in our criminal justice system is not about what actually happened, it's all about what is able to be argued by experts (well, hopefully experts) within these byzantine systems of rules. The only difference is that in sports we can go to the video record and draw our own conclusions of what happened, while in the criminal justice system we typically just have to hope things turned out for the best...

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