What the NFL's Replacement Referees Have to Do with Islamic Law

The other day as I was watching Sportscenter on ESPN (a guilty pleasure, I allow myself 20 minutes a week) I heard Herm Edwards say something quite interesting about the replacement referees that have caused such a fiasco in the National Football League.  The NFL as an institution, he suggested, and all involved in it--the striking officials, the recalcitrant league front office, the stubborn owners, the whining players, the hyperpartisan coaches--all had a responsibility to "protect the shield" and were failing to do so.

I'm not sure where the term "protect the shield" comes from, it sounds like it has something to do with a police force, but I like it.  Because in any system in which rules are going to be adjudicated, there needs to be a cover of legitimacy, authority, and finality in the adjudicatory process--a "shield", if you will, with some level of trust, almost faith, as to the methods that lie beneath.  The system depends on that trust, that faith.  It isn't inherently rational, it's almost what my colleague Jessie Allen describes as "legal magic" in a recent piece in the Denver University Law Review.  If you want to know if you got ten yards in football, you bring out magic sticks and tug on them, and they tell you.  That's ritual, it's not reason, you cannot possibly think the sticks measure anything with any reasonable level of precision.  It's not, to be clear, entirely divorced from reason, there is some predictability in the enterprise, but there's a great deal of trust as well--that hold that was called was indeed a hold, never mind the referee doesn't see it a good number of times, that offsides not called may not have been offsides, never mind that another referee on another day would have called it.  We close our eyes to the randomness, the arbitrariness, and trust in the ritual, believing even when we know it isn't entirely true neutral rules are being applied with some level of predictability and certainty, or at least something close enough to predictability and certainty to count.   

But when the trust is broken, the faith shaken, the system no longer stands.   That referees from the Lingerie Football League make bad calls more often than regular officials would in a professional football game is so obvious as not to be interesting.  But what they do that's worse is they break the trust.  Now every single time there's a unpenalized illegal hold, even one perhaps an ordinary referee would not necessarily have seen, it is pointed out to us.  Every time the referees huddle to discuss, when perhaps ordinary referees would have done it, it is emphasized. And even when the referees end up making the right call, there is screaming and shouting from coach and player alike.  Bill Belichick was apoplectic, seemingly genuinely so, after two calls that did not happen to be in his direction at the end of his game.  One was a noncalled pass interference, and the other a field goal ruled inside the uprights.  Both were correct, and yet this went relatively unemphasized, in a manner that almost surely would not have been the case had the referees been the normal ones.  Then it would have been "you know Cris, Bill's pretty upset, but the referees were right!" Cris:"Yup, two correct calls."  That's assuming the coach would have even been upset had his trust not been broken, his faith not shaken.  When you lose the authority, you lose control of the process, and chaos results.  Just look at Monday night.

Lotsa sports dude, you might be thinking, I thought this blog was about Islamic law. Right, so let's answer the question, what does all of this have to do with Islamic law?

Easy, in the Sunni Muslim world, they've been playing the game of Islamic law for the last eighty years with replacement refs.  And so no adjudicator can actually rule on anything without being accused of bias.  Of course there's bias and external influence, that's how law is made to the Legal Realist and a running theme of this blog.  Yet when the judge is authoritative, we at least pretend it isn't so.  Not the case when the judge is deemed false.  Hence the Taliban accuse Egypt of adopting Western, idolatrous family laws on divorce when they should stick to true Islam.  What did Egypt do?  It codified the rules of one Sunni school of thought, the Maliki, thereby replacing the rules of the other Sunni school, the Hanafi, that had ruled previously.  Under no reasonable conception of Sunni classical theory could that possibly be considered illegitimate let alone an idolatrous aping of the West.  Yet the Taliban said it, and frankly nobody knows who's right when they do, it's just a shouting match that leaves everyone confused.    The problem, in other words, isn't just that the refs get the calls wrong, though they frequently do, it's that they don't have any legitimacy.  The shield, the trust in the neutral adjudicator, is missing. 

Then, live long enough with replacement refs, and all of a sudden random people start deciding they're the refs, and some Yemeni runs off to Afghanistan puts a turban on his head and starts issuing what he thinks are religious edicts about near enemies and far enemies but which are more properly described as the incoherent anticolonial rantings of a lunatic.   To have a functioning system, you need, in other words, more than simply plausibilty.  You need a trusted referee, or it doesn't work.  And the fact is, Sunni Islam has no such thing, which is in many ways its biggest problem.

To be clear, I don't mean that if such refs existed, then the Muslim world would be liberal.  Shi'a jurists of Najaf for example, are trusted as real refs, no questioning is done as to their modes and methods of reasoning, no accusations of Western bias or obsessions with anticolonialism, they are no less affected by such influences in their interpretations than Sunnis, as I've pointed out many times elsewhere, but this is not seen, because the shield holds.  We believe it to be neutral even if rationally we know it cannot quite be entirely so.  And yet Shi'ism isn't liberalism, nor does it claim to be.  But at least, when you have a question, there is an answer, there is a channeling, there is a doctrinal system and an underlying methodology to address the matter. 

Sunnism has none of that, it's all replacement refs.  And seemingly will be for some time to come.



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