Life isn’t fair. Or just.

UW PAT BlockSome of you might have caught this on your local sports news broadcast this week. With time running out in the 4th quarter, a college football quarterback finishes a potentially game-tying drive by scrambling from the two yard line and outrunning his pursuers across the goal line. Out of excitement, the player tosses the ball over his shoulder and runs to celebrate with his teammates.

The result? A personal foul for excessive celebration. The game-tying point-after attempt is now 33 yards instead of 18. The kicker lines up, adjusts the trajectory for a longer shot . . . and the kick is blocked. A major upset is thwarted, and sports announcers start complaining about how “unfair” a personal celebration call is in that situation.

Most second-year law students should spot the problem here. 1Ls… got it yet?

Here’s a hint – the NCAA rules for excessive celebration (p. 114):

2. After a score or any other play, the player in possession immediately must return the ball to an official or leave it near the dead-ball spot. This prohibits:
(a) Kicking, throwing, spinning or carrying (including off of the field) the ball any distance that requires an official to retrieve it.

(c) Throwing the ball high into the air.
(d) Any other unsportsmanlike act or actions that delay the game.

The first step is always to read the applicable rule. What, then, exactly is unfair about the referee’s decision? There’s no accusation that the rule in question was being applied inconsistently – that is to say, both teams were held to the same rules, had the same awareness of the rules, and no player was excused from them at any time. If anything, the excessive celebration call was, to the letter of the law, extremely fair.

(Note: if you at any time questioned what the words “throw”, “high”, or “action” mean in the context of this rule, you’re either inherently quizzical or you have had a class with Ward Farnsworth.)

The true question is: was the call just? And here opens the Pandora’s Box of this argument and almost every one you will in law school. Because almost every judicial dissent, classroom debate, and interpretation of the law will eventually come down to a conversation about who is “right”, what policies guide the law, and what intentions are at play. In the end, you will have to balance ex post and ex ante concerns – what happens now vs. what happens in the future. What happens if the referees sacrifice fairness later for justice now? Is the problem with the way the game is being played or the way the rules are written? What can you use and what do you want to change?

This is the fun of 1L year – you get the starting blocks of the law, and you’re free to jump to whatever conclusions you so choose. It’s a time to really start thinking about the law and what it means on a deeper level (like, totally, man, I’m digging that vibe). In conclusion, law school doesn’t sap the fun out of everything that once amused you – it just provides a different kind of self-absorbing amusement. Or something.