Recently, I’ve been playing a lot of basketball. Mostly pickup games at the gym. Now, I’m not the most spectacular player by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I’m often reminded by my teammates that I’d probably fit in better on a football field than a basketball court, but I’m still learning.
The nature of the pickup game, though, is such that there usually isn’t a referee. Most often, there’s nobody whose job it is to make the calls, enforce the rules, and make sure that everyone’s playing fair. Because of this, it’s really left up to the individual players to call our own fouls, track our own out of bounds, and watch for travelling, keep track of the score, and decide what is and isn’t “fair play.”
It’s a raw version of Huizinga’s magic circle, especially considering that, regardless of the individual players’ full, half, or even just partial understanding of the rules is generally just submitted to whomever the players believe best understands them.
Put another way, I often have a hard time with the intricacies of basketball rules: Three in the key, hand is part of the ball, proper screening, hand on the back when you’re defending, boxing-out techniques, foul rules on rebounds… There are just so many things that I don’t completely understand the specifics of, and so I generally try to take what more-experienced players on the court tell me as truth.
All players, upon entering the court’s magic circle, agree to abide by the group’s consensus of calls on the court, for most anything, except for one rather specific instance.
Fouls. Everyone is expected to call their own fouls. When you foul someone, you’re expected to say something, so that the offended player/team can get the ball back and everyone can start playing again.
Now, of course, because it’s a bunch of human beings playing, as opposed to robots, this opens up the system to abuse, as players are allowed to self-determine what is and is not a foul. The system’s effectiveness is determined by honesty, which can sometimes be difficult to ascertain when both individuals in a situation are in conflict, each with a stake in the outcome of a decision.
So, we appeal to sportsmanship, and the desire for fair play, in the hopes that our own common decency will allow us to look a little past our personal gain towards the greater goal of everyone getting back to the game and playing again.
Granted, the stake and the repercussions may not be all that high in a pickup basketball game, and so generally things go relatively smoothly. But not always.
On Facebook, forums, and message boards, or even in random conversations in real-life, I feel like we similarly enter into a “magic circle” when we offer an opinion. We agree to allow for others to look over something that we’ve stated, and respond to it.
Much like a game of pickup basketball, we tend to pick teams quickly, deciding for or against a given opinion, with those who don’t care choosing not to enter the circle. What is interesting, though, is how quickly we end up in a foul situation, with two or more individuals battling over a “call” that was made.
The desire is not to get back to the game, instead, the game is transformed into “winning the call,” and we pride ourselves on our own moral victories over another individual simply because we were “right” and they were “wrong.” We delude ourselves into believing that the “call” is what’s important, when the reality is that even when you have a referee, sometimes the wrong call is made. Sometimes it doesn’t come out in your favor, but you’ve got to keep on going, and keep on playing anyway.
But so often, we don’t do that. Instead, we focus on the call, we let it boil inside of us. We get angry, bitter, or spiteful that someone would dare make the call against us. Or, on the flip side, we instead make the call pre-emptively, assuming a foul before the play has even occurred. We call foul when, in fact, the play was clean to begin with.
Now, of course, the metaphor is starting to get away from me here, but I’d just like to leave it at this – We, each of us, are either playing the game, or we’re standing on the sidelines watching. Each time that we engage someone else, each time that we decide to share our thoughts with others, we consciously decide to take a shot.
From that point in, you’re in the magic circle, you’re on the court, and you don’t always get to decide who’s going to be playing with you. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t show a little good sportsmanship. Play the game.
Because unlike basketball, there’s not always a clear winner. But if we don’t learn to call our own fouls, you can be sure there will be plenty of losers.