Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Great Bridge Scandal of 2007

Quite a story roiling the bridge world: the U.S. women's bridge team, winners of the of Venice Cup, the international women's world bridge championships, held up a sign saying "We did not vote for Bush" at the gold medal ceremony in Shanghai, during the playing the U.S. national anthem. The United States Bridge Federation, the organization that represents the U.S. in international play, wants to ban the winning team from play (including not just USBF play but American Contract Bridge League play as well) for a year. The story has already made the N.Y. Times and of course it's all the rage on the bridge newsgroup.

A little analysis: it's not actually a First Amendment matter, because there's no government involvement. The USBF is a private organization. The NFL bans players from displaying political messages during games and that doesn't violate the First Amendment. So while it seems reflexive (to Americans) to invoke the First Amendment, that's not actually the issue.

No, the issue is whether the penalty makes any sense. I do think the players were naive to imagine that people wouldn't get offended. Injecting politics into a bridge event is naturally going to raise some hackles. We all know what happened to the Dixie Chicks when they mixed an offhand political comment with music -- and that was at their own concert. And of course the 1968 Olympic incident involving Tommie Smith and John Carlos is an even closer parallel. So the team should have known they were asking for trouble.

Still, the penalty seems way over the top. It's not clear, first of all, that the USBF actually has any rule that was violated; the Federation seems to be proceeding under a general rule forbidding "conduct unbecoming a player." That's a bit of a stretch. Second, the USBF's authority to ban players from ACBL play seems mysterious. Finally, the penatly just seems far too harsh. Players may not have a right to express political messages at the awards ceremony, but, being Americans, we should let free speech be a value that informs how harshly we treat it. What kind of message are we sending to the Chinese hosts of the game with such a harsh penalty? "Yes, stamping out dissenting political messages is a great thing"?

Probably what's happening is that the UCBF is run by a bunch of humorless Republicans who can't bear to see Bush criticized and who are flexing their muscles. If I were in charge, I would give the players a talking-to and institute a rule of decorum for awards ceremonies. The players can make whatever statement they want afterwards. But for this incident, let's chill a little.


yashmakkk said...

How about this: Perhaps the
ACBL is run by a bunch of humorless PATRIOTS who are loathe to see their country and its institutions demeaned in this way. I, for one, am not amused by an obviously Democrat law professor on the loose...making light of yet another rend in the social and political fabric of this wonderful country!

yashmakkk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.