What do Elon Musk, Roe v. Wade, James Harden, and professional soccer have in common? They all illustrate the near-universal human disgust with “working the refs”.
“Working the refs” is a term I know from professional basketball. Working the refs consists of influencing the decision-making of the referees, who call fouls and enforce the rules during NBA games. Some of this doesn’t bother me, like when Chris Paul won the Oklahoma City Thunder a game by convincing referee Scott Foster (his arch-enemy) to call a technical foul on the opposing team because Jordan Bell checked into the game before tucking in his jersey, or when coaches use their press conferences to lobby for better treatment of their star players.
But where working the refs makes my blood boil is when players like James Harden mercilessly and repeatedly exploit the rules to work against the spirit of the game. The goal of basketball is to make baskets (it’s in the name of the game itself!). Fouls and free throws exist so that if a player tries to make a basket, and an opposing player breaks the rules to stop him by fouling, that rule-breaking is punished. Harden makes a mockery of this by dribbling into opponents and contorting his body to force referees to call a foul, even if he has no chance of making an actual basket. Alternately, he throws himself backwards to fool the referees into believing that his opponent fouled him. I suspect he learned his techniques from watching soccer players. You can see examples of his “work” here:
But this essay is not about James Harden, whose play style I despise, and who I hope never wins a championship and goes down in NBA history as the giant loser he is. Rather, it’s about how Harden’s “working the refs” approach is becoming more and more widespread outside the world of sports, where it can cause much greater harm.
Roe v. Wade is a perfect example, because it illustrates how different sides of a controversial issue are both guilty of employing this technique.
Both the original Roe v. Wade ruling and its overturn are an example of working the refs, in this case, the US Supreme Court. The actual “game” of American democracy is for Congress to pass the laws. The judicial branch, with the Supreme Court at the top, are the referees who rule on whether those laws are constitutional. (There is also the Constitutional Amendment process where either 2/3rds of the House and Senate, or 2/3rds of the state legislatures can propose changes, which, when ratified by 3/4ths of the states, go into effect).
The original Roe v. Wade ruling struck down Texas’ abortion laws as unconstitutional (so far so good). But the court then ruled that the Constitution conferred an unwritten right to privacy which meant that the states could not outlaw abortions, but could restrict them. This enraged abortion opponents, who saw this as working the refs (relying on a ruling by an unelected Supreme Court rather than building the popular support to pass a national abortion protection law).
Of course, those same abortion opponents then made “working the refs” their sole focus, by trying to get enough sympathetic justices appointed to the Supreme Court to allow them to overturn the Roe v. Wade ruling. This “the ends justify the means” hypocrisy makes it hard to give creedence to their criticisms of judicial legislation.
Both of these rulings followed the rules, much like James Harden, but both bypassed the actual “game” of legislation to “work the refs” on the Supreme Court.
The same kind of dynamic has played out with Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter. Musk bought Twitter claiming to be a “free speech absolutist”. His argument is that the power of “woke capitalism” (whatever that is) comes from working the refs–in this case, Twitter’s moderation policies and team–to support some political views and policies, and suppress others.
Of course, once Musk took over Twitter, he made himself the referee, and began issuing flawed and contradictory rulings himself, kicking off people he didn’t like, and restoring others he did. I supposed that technically he isn’t “working the refs” since he is the refs, but the general principle of an unprincipled decision-maker making arbitrary rulings certain applies to how Musk has run Twitter.
His hypocrisy is apparent in his use of Twitter polls to make decisions…except when he disagrees with them, such as when Twitter users strongly voted that he should step down.
These are just a few examples of egregious behavior. Sam Bankman-Fried’s massive political donations (using money stolen from his customers) are another clear example.
So what can we do about this?
First, understanding the “working the refs” dynamic and playbook allows us to call out this strategy when we see it. And while many are now so polarized that they are willing to forgive any hypocrisy as long as it benefits their particular tribe, the finely balanced nature of American democracy right now means that even a relatively small proportion of so-called independents who are willing to punish hypocrites can have a major influence.
Second, we can strive to avoid descending to the same level. Focus on the alternative strategy of actually winning at the game itself. In politics, this might mean building popular support for your cause, and refining voter turnout infrastructure. In the field of free speech, this might mean articulating clear principles, rather than accepting ad hoc impulse when it favors your cause.
After publishing this essay, I decided to let ChatGPT give it a try and have pasted the results, verbatim, below. You can decide which version you like better.
ChatGPT prompt: “Write an essay in the style of Chris Yeh that discusses why people dislike the strategy of cheating the game by “working the refs” using the examples of Elon Musk, Roe v. Wade, and James Harden.”
In today’s society, it seems that more and more individuals and groups are attempting to “work the refs” in order to gain an advantage or achieve their desired outcome. This strategy involves manipulating the rules, norms, or authority figures in a given situation in order to gain an unfair advantage. While it may seem tempting to try and cheat the game in this way, the reality is that this approach is ultimately self-defeating and leads to long-term negative consequences.
One example of an individual who has been accused of “working the refs” is Elon Musk. Musk is known for his ambitious and sometimes controversial business ventures, and has faced criticism for using his wealth and influence to sway regulators and politicians in his favor. For instance, Musk has been accused of using his high-profile Twitter account to bully or intimidate regulators, and has been known to use his political connections to lobby for favorable treatment.
While Musk may have had some short-term successes through these tactics, the long-term consequences of this approach are clear. Musk has faced numerous legal and ethical challenges as a result of his behavior, and his reputation has suffered as a result. Additionally, his actions have led to a perception that he is more concerned with personal gain than with the greater good, which can erode trust and damage relationships.
Another example of the consequences of “working the refs” can be seen in the landmark Supreme Court case of Roe v. Wade. In this case, the pro-choice side argued that women had a constitutional right to access abortion services, while the pro-life side argued that the right to life of the unborn child took precedence. Ultimately, the Court ruled in favor of the pro-choice side, recognizing a woman’s right to privacy and the right to make decisions about her own body.
However, the pro-life side did not accept this decision, and instead embarked on a campaign to “work the refs” by lobbying state legislators and supporting pro-life judges. This approach has had some short-term successes, as a number of states have passed restrictive abortion laws that seek to chip away at the principles established in Roe v. Wade. However, the long-term consequences of this strategy are clear: the ongoing conflict over abortion rights has led to a divisive and polarizing national debate, with both sides dug in and unwilling to compromise.
A final example of the dangers of “working the refs” can be seen in the case of James Harden, a star NBA player known for his ability to draw fouls and earn free throws. Harden has been accused of “flopping” or exaggerating the impact of fouls in order to convince the referees to make a call in his favor. While this tactic may have helped Harden win a few games and earn some extra points, it has also led to a perception that he is a “cheat” and has damaged his reputation. In the long run, this approach is likely to erode the trust and respect of his teammates, coaches, and fans, ultimately undermining his success on the court.
In conclusion, the strategy of “working the refs” may seem like a tempting way to gain an advantage or achieve a desired outcome. However, the reality is that this approach is ultimately self-defeating and leads to long-term negative consequences. Whether it is in business, politics, or sports, those who try to cheat the game by manipulating the rules or authority figures will ultimately pay a high price in terms of their reputation and relationships. It is always better to play by the rules and strive for success through hard work and integrity.