The futile chase of fairness

The twins are seven now and have already developed a keen nose for ‘controvassy’. 

Every after-school debrief is dominated by various outrages encountered during breaktime games of ‘catch’.

Catch is what they call tag, or chase, or tig as I knew it.

Den loitering is their chief bugbear. To both their minds, the individual who emerges briefly from den only to gesticulate wildly in the direction of whoever is ‘on’ before stepping back to safety, is a monster.

Herself is totally against ‘catchbacks’, the controversial practice of immediately tagging whoever has just caught you in a ‘no, you’re on’ fashion. 

A five-second catchback rule has even been mooted.

The young lad has noted simulation creeping into the game, with a rise in claims of immunity for dubious slips during the act of being tagged.

Criticism for those who dispute a legitimate catch is strong. And there are many complaints about conduct while ‘on’, acts of deceit such as pretending you’re not playing in order to effect an underhand catch.

In certain cases, these complaints have been directed at one another.

What they essentially crave is a governing body, to impose and officiate a set of agreed rules. And yet there is condemnation of any player who seeks a ruling from whatever nearby official is supervising ‘yard’.

It is the quintessential longing for fairness in sport and life, coupled with the natural reluctance to accept arbitration.

The conviction that all would be well if only everyone shared your own sense of justice.

“When I die, I’m going to ask God where the referees are before I choose between heaven and hell,” said Arsene Wenger last week, trusting the Big Referee’s sense of humour more than the lads in the Premier League.

The latest episode of the renowned This American Life radio show and podcast focuses on the search for fairness, with producer David Kestenbaum reflecting on children’s innate sense of what is fair.

“There’s actual scientific research on this. Kids know when something’s unfair, some when they’re just 12 months old.”

“It is everything,” agrees Kathleen Jones, a preschool teacher he interviews. 

And rules. They live by rules. They can sit down to play a game, and that whole playtime will be nothing but arguing about the rules. And then there’s no playtime left.

Perfect preparation for a life debating Champions League penalty appeals.

The episode, called No Fair, seeks the guidance of Moneyball author Michael Lewis, whose own new podcast, Against The Rules, is devoted to fairness and the rise of distrust in America.

Lewis explores the explosion of dissent against referees in NBA basketball and the widespread dissatisfaction with officials among fans.

“If there’s one thing that unites Americans just now, it’s their belief that the refs suck, which is weird, because they almost certainly suck less than ever before.”

It is a view shared by many observers of the NFL and the Premier League too, that refs have never been worse.

But Lewis brings us to a nondescript building in Secaucus, New Jersey that attempts to make them better: the ‘Replay Center’, NBA’s answer to VAR.

There are 110 screens broadcasting feeds from cameras at 29 NBA arenas. A fleet of officials respond to signals from courtside referees to scour footage at 1/60 of a second for stray elbows.

With some experience assessing the value of things, Lewis considers it “insane”.

Michael Lewis
Michael Lewis

“The time and money now being spent to ensure the fairness of what, after all, is just a basketball game — a bajillion miles of fiber optic cable connect this room directly to the NBA arenas around the country, all for two calls a game.”

But NBA commissioner Adam Silver regards it a necessary layer of trust-building.

“If people don’t believe that the league office is unbiased and that the officials are unbiased, you’re going to have a problem regardless of the accuracy of the calls.”

Lewis would rather take his chances with heaven and hell than linger in purgatory awaiting word from New Jersey.

“The refs used to insist on their authority. And everyone agreed that there was no better way to ensure the fairness of the game than to let the ref play God. The Replay Center is an admission that the ref is not God, that he makes mistakes.”

He asks NBA ref Monty Mccutchen if the sound of 18,000 people booing is any different since he started out.

“Yeah. There’s a little more anger involved,” says Mccutchen.

“Mistakes get made as NBA referees. And they’re just mistakes.

But they often get interpreted in this wider scheme of thought process that a lot of our culture is dealing with right now, which is, there must be a fix in. There must be a reason for this.

Something to do, perhaps, with the wider distrust Against The Rules explores. 

In the police, the justice system, politics, media, Wall Street. The widespread conviction that the whole system is rigged. That life just isn’t fair.

But back to the playground. How would a young sport just starting out handle fairness?

Chase Tag was devised in London in 2011 by brothers Christian and Damien Devaux.

Now World Chase Tag is a professional circuit built around 20-second pursuits involving ‘evaders’ and ‘taggers’ through parkour-style obstacle courses.

There are no dens to hatch in and herself will be pleased to note that ‘tagbacks’ are banned.

Christian Devaux told us this week that the sport would like to rely for integrity on the sense of fairness already developed in the 12-month-old.

Yes, it’s much better when evaders admit to being tagged. The community is quite tight so there haven’t been any hugely controversial decision yet… but I’m sure that will soon come.

That wariness of controvassy has already sent World Chase Tag down the road Adam Silver and most sports have taken.

“An independent body to referee the matches would really help to maintain the integrity of the sport and make sure there is a total faith that WCT are not able to influence the outcome of a match in any way,” said Damien Devaux in 2017.

Christian confirmed this week that body was now set up.

“Sometimes there is an issue with disputed tags, but for the Championship events we have a VAR system in place and we name and shame offenders.”

They grow up so fast.

Crisis management, Plan B

The three golden rules of PR crisis management, according to Forbes, are: 1, Take responsibility; 2, Be proactive, be transparent, be accountable; and 3, Get ahead of the story.

These are the big three, though there are other things to consider in their full complement of 13 golden rules.

Stuff like “when asked to comment, never reply with: ‘no comment’.

And “act fast before people lose faith in your brand”.

And “you’ll find that new lows in brand experience always start at the top”.

There are other gems they might include in any updated edition, such as: “Know how many bank accounts you have, just in case you are asked”.

Of course, all these PR strategies presume your organisation has a bank of goodwill to draw on during troubled times.

That you are generally regarded as a body with a fine reputation for getting things done and getting them done right.

In certain other cases, maybe there’s an argument for a different approach: Say nothing and let the story plough ahead without you.

Heroes & villains

Stairway to heaven

Tara Moore: When tennis’s world number 479 is a household name one day, they will dig out this Hollywood sequence.

Down 0-6, 0-5, 30-40 at the ITF event in Sunderland, Moore saved a match point against Jessika Ponche with a lucky net cord, before stirring herself to complete one of the great comebacks.

Troy Parrott: Two more crackers. And a healed toe just as Harry’s ankle goes again.

Might he get a game at the Arena before May?

Hell in a handcart

The racists: The Guardian’s depressing investigation into grassroots racism suggests the abuse of Raheem Sterling, Danny Rose, and Mo Salah is the tip of an ugly iceberg.

“I think we are close to players taking control,” says Troy Townsend of Kick It Out.

“If there are one or two more high-profile incidents this season, I think we are on the cusp of it.

"Are we close to a team walking off a pitch? I think we might be.”

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