Following the predetermined process is more important than producing an equitable outcome. This principle holds true whether applied to athletics, governmental affairs, or the legal system. As is often is the case, happenings in the world of sports can provide key insights into much broader truths.
On its face, it seems illogical when one stops to consider that an 11-5 New Orleans Saints squad would be forced to travel over 2,000 miles to play a Seattle Seahawks team with a losing record. The typical NFL fan might reason that the Saints are the defending Super Bowl champions and won a stunning four more games than their opponent in the NFL’s wild card round. How unfair! This might appear to make even less sense when one stops to consider that a 10-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneer team sitting at home during this postseason, while the 7-9 Seattle franchise is hosting a home playoff game. Due to the NFL’s rules governing the seeding of playoff teams, the Seahawks are slated to have home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs thanks to their status as division champs. For better or worse, this was the agreement all sides agreed to years ago when the playoff process was outlined.
Without any context, it would appear absurd that a team with a losing record would make the playoffs simply because it won its respective division. The casual observer would find this at least marginally unjust. They might even propose the NFL should just move the Buccaneers or Giants, teams with a winning record who did not qualify for the playoffs due to the NFL’s previously agreed upon rules, into the spot reserved for the Seahawks. A Bucs or Giants fans would surely agree: we had the better record, who cares about divisions? ‘Sure, those rules have been long established, but they don’t fit the current realities; we are more deserving, just put us in there instead’ might be a refrain offered by the fans whose teams did not qualify for the playoffs despite finishing with more victories than Seattle. Similar parallels to this have rise in the world of NCAA football even since the installing of the BCS system, notably Connecticut’s appearance in the BCS Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day.
But the NFL cannot simply change the rules midstream. It has adopted clear, concise policies about how the playoff system works. Straying from those would create a precedent which disorder would stem from. Division winners in the wild card round get the home game, even if they have half as many wins as their opponents. This framework, having been agreed upon at a previous date, cannot be thrown out the window on a whim. Even if it appears more “fair” or popular in the short term to allow a team with more wins to leap frog one with fewer wins, this would cause massive uncertainty during future seasons. If this arrangement could be aborted on a whim, what else might the league do for convenience’s sake? This mirrors the way in which the rule of law regulates matters in our system, letting individuals act with the knowledge of what is and is not foul of the law.
As 20th century economist F. A. Hayek stated, “The only public good with which the judge can be concerned is the observance of those rules that the individual could reasonably count on.” Judges need to “apply the rules even if in the particular instance the known consequences will appear to him wholly undesirable.” This concept is known as the rule of law. It is one of the few things separating first from third world countries, preventing governments from substituting arbitrary personal feelings for the blind application of justice. Without this, contracts and private property become a farce, and the country’s resources can never develop as efficiently as possible.
This line of thinking has major implications when it comes to how a country conducts itself in the governmental sense. A country with a written constitution that contains clear, delineated powers cannot simply usurp these because they find it will produce desirable result A, B, or C in the near term. If anything deemed in the general welfare is able to done by a government, then it has no speed bumps to its actual powers. That sort of society becomes governed by statutory, not constitutional, law; everything is fair game that the legislature or executive in that nation labels as such. Aside from mere formalities relating to its proceedings, a constitution is meaningless if a government possesses the power to stretch its language beyond recognition.
A Senator or House member who feels their election requires them to do all they think is “best for their constituents” has no restraint on his capacity to do tremendous harm. When dealing with things as complex as our modern economy, long term harm is generally all that can come from this mind set in government. The same is true with our Federal Reserve system, which assumes that a few Fed Board members and governors can have free reign to force economic contractions or expansions while never having been granted that power under the U. S. Constitution. If a contract as publicized as that country’s constitution ceases to become anything but a toothless historical document, then how are any contracts safe in the long term? The concise rule of law becomes endangered when a society views agreements that have been signed off on as too much of straitjacket to one party or special interest.
Just look how it turned out for the NFL. By sticking to their past agreements, they not only kept the chaos at bay which would have emerged if fans of other teams begin clamoring about this or that injustice, but they ended up producing one amazing game in the process. The unthinkable happened, as the Seahawk team that seemingly “did not belong” ended up pulling off the upset. Sometimes being committed to the process over fleeting, quickly disappearing gains can produce much more of an upside than we might have that. We need to be mindful of that once again as a nation as well.