From the Tennis Court to the Divorce Court

Four decades ago I visited Europe for the first time. One of the highlights of the trip was a tour of the House of Parliament in London. Our guide was very excited to relate to us that, during recent renovations of the vast kitchen-dining hall, a very old tennis ball was found lodged in one of the chimneys. Given the ball’s markings it was believed by the in-house historians to be one of the balls used by Henry VIII to play tennis with one of his wives. Perhaps this particular wife was an early version of Serena Williams and was able to vanquish Henry in the hall, thus setting herself up for divorce and/or decapitation.
The US legal system, like tennis, was based on a British model. On that first trip to London I was able to watch a fascinating murder case in the Old Bailey. In it the “bigwig” judge had to decide if a cherubic-looking teen defendant was guilty of murder (he did decide so, eventually).
Tennis emerged from its own “bigwig” era circa 50 years ago by loosening the old white-only clothing rules and dropping the outdated pro-amateur dichotomy. The biggest change of all was dictated by television: the tie-breaker. This is a change that virtually all fans and players heartily approve, indeed it’s impossible to imagine going back to the old scoring system in which tennis matches could be as agonizingly long as cricket matches still are today. Indeed Wimbledon alone has kept a ban on 5th set tie-breakers which resulted in American John Isner, back in 2010, winning 70-68 in the 5th set in a match that lasted 11 hours and extended over three days!
The agony of Isner’s titanic struggle is what many parents feel in today’s family court. This old bigwig institution needs to finally enter the 21st century and institute the judicial equivalent of tennis’ tie-breaker. States like Arizona and Utah have moved in that direction by setting 30-40% time share guidelines for child custody. What would be even better is a 50% time share default, unless one parent prefers less time-many dads and some executive moms, for example, would probably do so to further their careers.
The greatest impediment to this long-needed reform is, as the old bigwigs might say, “Cui bono”, Latin for “who benefits?” The current system, an almost apartheid-adversarial one, is strongly favored by the “iron triangle” of attorneys, court workers and so-called expert witnesses/consultants. The fact that many of them would have to find more socially-useful employment (much as ex-Stasi members had to do in 90’s Germany) should no longer be a barrier to children spending equal time with both of their parents.

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