Tuesday, June 06, 2006

How Big A Deal Is It If Nadal's Uncle Was Coaching Him?

There was a dust-up at the French Open, in which Roger Federer accused his arch-rival Rafael Nadal of cheating. The claim was that he was being coached by his Uncle Toni from the stands. If you are unfamiliar with tennis, you might wonder why this would violate the dictates of fair play. Other sports rely on coaching. In football, for example, hordes of coaches work together and call plays onto the field using radios. Even in individual sports like boxing, the fighters both get advice not only shouted during the match, but conference with their trainers between rounds. What's going on with tennis?

Sports are an unusual sort of activity where the whole idea is to set out a goal and then eliminate the easiest way to achieve it. "You need to get this ball to the other side of the court and into the basket. No, you can't run it down, you need to dribble." "You need to keep this guy from getting to your quarterback. No, you can't hold him or tackle him." "You need to take this 280 pound behemoth and knock him out. No, you can't hit him in the gonads or bite off his ear." Cheating in sports is when you take advantage of of unfair means of circumventing the hurdles to the goal.

These hurdles are put in place by the rules of the game. Sports are like governments, they need a governing social contract that sets outs who can do what, when, and how. Philosopher of Sports, Bernard Suits, distinguishes between two sorts of rules: what he calls constitutive rules that determine how the game is played and rules of skill that determine how the game is played well. The easiest way to understand this distinction is in terms of personal and technical fouls in basketball. A personal foul is something like traveling or goaltending where you didn't play in exactly the way the formal written rules demand. A technical foul, on the other hand, is a bigger deal. It is a violation, not of the letter of the law, but of the spirit of the game itself. It is, what is aptly named in football unsportsmanlike conduct, that is behavior that takes one out of the realm of good sportsmanship. (This terminology always struck me as assbackward -- in lacrosse for example, a technical foul is a mere technical violation of some small rule of play, but a personal foul was a foul against the person.)

Sometimes playing the game well requires violating constitutive rules. In basketball, if your team is down by two with thirty seconds left on the clock and you don't intentionally foul, then you aren't playing right. If the blitzing safety is going to clock your quarterback, cost you serious yardage and potentially injure him, you hold. That is how the game is supposed to be played. All other things being equal, you follow the constitutive rules, but there are times when you need to violate those rules to play well.

But you do it openly and you accept the consequences. You don't violate the constitutive rules and hide the fact in order to secure an unfair advantage. That would be violating the spirit of the game in the way you violate the letter of the law. You can cheat by violating either type of rule.

Of course, there are degrees. When I was a lacrosse goalie in college and an attackman was trying to set up a screen in front of me to force me out of position to see the ball, I would use the fact that he was blocking my view as an advantage not allowed by the rules. See, if he was blocking my view of the field, he was also blocking the view of me from the field. That meant that as long as he was screening, his back and the back of his legs -- and anything I might do to them with my stick -- couldn't be seen. Was this a violation of the rules, yes. But it was also standard operating procedure. It was part of the game and a goalie who didn't do that wasn't being a legitimate division I player. Every game, and every league has not only its own rules, but its own ethos. Its own code of what is an acceptable breach of the rules for the sake of competition and what is an unacceptable breach of the rules that violates the spirit of competition. It is this ethos that determines when one has committed a violation of a rule of skill. What is allowable in little league is surely not the same as in the pros. They may both have the same technical, constitutive rules, but the games are different. In one case it is learning the game, learning to be a good winner and a good loser, getting exercise, and having fun; in the other case, it is winning and elevating the game. These different goals give a different ethos to each competition.

The question is, if Uncle Toni was, in fact, coaching Nadal, which sort of violation was it? Was it a mere technicality like allowing your foot to come down on the line while serving or was it a more serious offense like using an illegally strung racket? Was it a violation of the ethos of the game or a minor infraction?

The key factor here is whether the coaching, if true, would it give Nadal a significant, unfair advantage. I contend that it would. There is a reason that football coaches are in constant contact with their staffs up in the booths looking down on the field. The perspective allows you to see things from up top that you don't see from the sideline, and even less from the field of play. Football with twenty-two interweaving bodies is much more complex in this way than the two spatially separated bodies of tennis, but the perspective of the observer still allows significant insight denied the player who is focused on the ball and his own strategy. A coach can pick up on "tells" that the player may not be able to see until clued in on. He can keep track of the match and figure out strategic details that the player, in the heat of the match, would not have the time to decipher. To allow one player access to this sort of information is unfair in the most important fashion. It is a violation not only of the constitutive rules, but of the spirit of the game itself.

Is coaching inherently problematic? No. Would the quality of play increase if on-going, or even boxing-style between game or between set coaching was allowed? Maybe. Would it make tennis less cerebral by allowing the player to be the body and the coach to be the brain? Probably. But this is a question for tennis. As long as both players are not allowed open access to coaching, it is a big time problem if one player is receiving it. Even if, as Peter Bodo claims, it wouldn't have helped Nadal much.