In the early days of 48 Minutes of Hell I published an ethical defense of Bruce Bowen and his style of play. At the time we had a much smaller readership than we do currently so I wanted to return to the topic.
Bowen is clearly in the winter of his career. Even Popovich, who will stubbornly play some veterans until well after they have begun receiving social security checks, has removed Bowen from the starting lineup and cut his minutes significantly (he is averaging 21.4 minutes per game compared to 30.2 last year). With Bowen nearing the end of his tenure as a Spur (he will likely retire after his contract expires in the 2009/2010 season), it's time to begin reflecting on the significance of his career.
Bowen will obviously be remembered for two things: His stifling perimeter defense and for being a "dirty" player. With almost no help whatsoever from the rest of the roster, Bowen's reputation alone has caused many basketball fans to conclude the Spurs in their entirety are a dirty team (the infamous Horry-Nash hip check, a single play, has helped to solidify this misguided notion). But the relative class of the franchise as a whole is not my concern: I want to directly address Bowen and his style of play.
Bowen is not merely an ethical enigma but a statistical one as well. For further thoughts on Bowen's unique relationship with the box score, make sure you check out Tim's piece from New Years Day.
My defense of Bowen has multiple parts so I want to break it down slowly and methodically.
The Court as Unique Ethical Space:
Sports do not abide by the same ethical codes that we have in regular society. The court (or field or ring) is an inorganically created space in which individuals abide by a set of arbitrarily defined rules. The codes of conduct pursued by the average individual are not valid during a sporting event and vice versa.
For example, it is illegal and for the most part unjustifiable to engage in fisticuffs in public. If I were to haul off and hit someone, I could be tried for assault. But in a boxing ring, such activity is not merely legal, it is essential. A boxer is encouraged to punch his opponent and praised for the skill and ferocity with which he does so. So it can be concluded that there is nothing inherently ethical or unethical about the act of punching someone. Its relative merit or demerit is directly linked to the social space in which the act occurs.
Every sport has an authoritative organization or series of authorities that determine the common laws by which a respective game is played. In professional football, it is called the National Football Association. In Boxing, it is some assortment of the several championship associations and the state boxing committees. In professional basketball we call it the National Basketball Association. The NBA decides what actions are legal and illegal during a basketball game. It is illegal to move with the ball if a player is not dribbling. It is illegal to punch another player. It is legal to redirect a shot if that shot has yet to touch the backboard or has yet to reach the top of its arc.
In fact, the NBA can even go back and declare specific acts illegal once the 48 minute period which it set has ended. For instance, last season Bruce Bowen was suspended for a game after kneeing Chris Paul in the chest, even though Bowen did not receive a foul call at the time. The league clearly displayed its power to review any on-court activity.
My point is this: If a referee does not call a foul and the NBA does not retroactively go back and impose some type of punishment, than the play is not unethical. The league has the ability to reflect on the action and dole out punishment but if it finds no fault in what occurred then there is in fact no fault. There is not an existent set of moral or legal criteria for the game other than the ones the NBA sets. There is no natural law of the hardwood. We as fans and as commentators can lobby for certain rules to be applied (for instance a great many of us, myself included, felt there should be some type of repercussion for an egregious flop, although I felt it should be internal to the game, not external such as a fine), but until they are applied there is not a moral foundation on which we may righteously base our ire.
In other words, if the league doesn't punish Bowen than he has done nothing wrong. And despite his reputation, the league punishes Bowen extremely infrequently.
When I first made this argument, a commenter noted that, although I made some good points, he felt I did not address the fact that Bowen is trying to hurt people while playing. Although my previous argument about the relativity of ethics in sports suggests that trying to hurt someone is not always wrong (for instance in boxing), I agree that this is a fair point: in basketball acts which are construed as genuinely malicious are looked down upon by the authorities that created and continue to revise the legal framework in which the game is played. What is problematic about this argument is that it is based off the notion that we can actually know Bowen's intention. I would argue that it is very difficult to decipher the relative benevolence or maliciousness of a player's intentions at any given moment.
For example, after David West injured his lower back while being picked by Robert Horry during last season's WCSF, the internet exploded with accusations of malicious intent on the part of Horry. I, as well as several other observers of the Association, felt West's injury was entirely an accident. Others felt Horry intended to injure West. My point is not to rehash the debate over that particular incident; my point is that thoughtful, respectful individuals can radically disagree about what they believe a player's intentions to be. The fact of the matter is, none of us other than Bowen himself know whether he intends to injure people when on the court and it is dubious at best to act as if you do.
The Basketball Court as Pedagogical Space:
In nearly every level of sports prior to professional sports (and even sometimes at the pro level), there is a strong pedagogical element. Coaches hope to not merely teach their players the rules of the game and the strategies/tactics it takes to prevail, but also to instill in them a level of character. Most youth associations and even some college programs promote some form of virtue ethics which are meant to crossover into your personal life. But at the pro level, the pedagogical nature of the game recedes rapidly. These are no longer boys; they are men. These are no longer students; they are professionals. They are paid to win basketball games and they are allowed to use whatever legal tactics are necessary to win games. It is not the responsibility of the NBA to attempt to instill in its players a moral fortitude which they will carry off the court.
As we noted time and time again here on this blog, the San Antonio Spurs have a "culture" or more specifically a level of character they look for in perspective players. But this has just as much if not more to do with what it takes to win as it does with being honorable for honor's sake. Having a moral code whose existence is directed towards the telos of victory is different than one directed at the creation of virtue.
The Quality of the Game:
Many people would make the argument that Bruce's style of play is problematic because of the way it effects the "quality of the game" or more accurately the quality of a fan's viewing experience. Some people like to call this the "dignity of the game" argument (often employed against the hack-a-shaq tactic) but the really issue is not dignity, the real issue is that the activity being committed is limiting your enjoyment of the game (in the instance of the hack-a-shaq by slowing down the pace of play to an almost unbearable level).
But unlike Popovich's oft maligned tactic (which even I have railed against at points), I would argue Bowen's "dirty" style of play actually increases the intensity and intrigue of a game: Is there any emotion more righteous than the indignation a fan feels when a player on his team has been subject to a "dirty" play? Nothing brings out the deepest degrees of partisanship like physical basketball. Yes, you may hate players like Bruce Bowen, but isn't he exactly the kind of player you love to hate? The guy whose existence makes your hatred so justifiable? Bowen's style of play does not undermine the quality of the game; in fact, it takes basketball (and basketball fandom) to the peak of its dramatic heights.
Notes for Commenters:
I understand that this is one of my more controversial stances and is likely to produce some pretty strong reactions in people. But this is a serious conversation I would like to have. If I feel a commenter has a made a legitimate point, I will try my best to address it, either in an updated version of this piece or in a later one. Note that the use of foul or offensive language will automatically disqualify you from having made a legitimate point.