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“It’s hard for me not to look at my own numbers against them and be pissed,” a retired major league pitcher said. “Everyone involved deserves to be seriously punished because it’s wrong.”

– a retired major league pitcher on the Astros, quoted in ESPN, January 2020

Cheating is serious business. We know this, almost instinctively, from earliest childhood — the righteous anger one feels when you catch someone sneaking a peek at your cards, dropping a rock only after seeing you put down scissors, sticking out a suspiciously well-placed foot preventing your escape in a game of tag. That’s not fair — cheater! You appeal to others around you, trying to get them to see, to mete out justice. Something has been disrupted here; something is wrong that can only be righted with punishment. You entered into a contest with agreed-upon rules, and those rules were broken in favor of cheap victory. It is self-evidently outrageous, self-evidently cruel, and even if justice is not done — even if the false victory is upheld through deception, lack of witnesses, or negligence of investigation — the hurt is indelible. You will never play rock-paper-scissors with that particular kid again. You will tell all your friends, too, not to engage in contests with them. A cheater is a cheater is a cheater.

And yet we know, too, an instinct coming from a similarly primal place, that cheating, when executed for one’s own benefit, and especially when executed without detection, can be valuable, if a little guilt-inducing. When the value of the prize claimed outweighs the guilt, it can even feel better than a straightforward win. After all, the other party, if they were smart enough, would have cheated, too, or at least cheated better than they did; and really, when you think about it, isn’t outsmarting the opposition part of the competition? Haven’t you, in the successful execution of your subterfuge, put in more effort than the loser now sulking about your victory? Isn’t this all just part of the game — a part of the game that you happened to be better at? You are not a cheater, no; that word doesn’t apply to what you’ve done. To call the means of your success cheating would be to demean the skill involved in said success, you think. One might almost consider the loser who is accusing you of cheating to be the real cheater — trying to steal away, through non-competitive, extrajudicial means, the victory you earned through your own ingenuity. Cheating is bad. And you, what you have done, isn’t bad.

***

Earlier in the week, MLB’s Department of Investigations released their report on the 2018 Red Sox’s sign-stealing operations. The outcome of the investigation — pinning almost all of the blame on a single replay room operator and having no organizational penalties beyond the loss of a second-round pick — has been described as a “slap on the wrist” and as requiring a suspension of disbelief. It has also been pointed out that, for those who had been expecting fireworks more in line with the suspensions and penalties that came in the aftermath of the 2017 Astros investigation, it seems that the Red Sox’ sign-stealing operation was hardly comparable in its complexity or deviousness. For some, the investigation’s conclusion that the sign-stealing did not continue into the 2018 postseason — wherein the Red Sox, you may recall, won the World Series — represents a satisfying enough conclusion to that team’s narrative. Others, like Dodgers fans who watched their team lose the Series at home to consecutive teams thereafter implicated in sign-stealing scandals, find themselves less satisfied than ever. In short — a typical reaction to the resolution of any cheating scandal in baseball.

Watching the aftermath of this investigation unfold, though, has been jarringly different than when it happened with the Astros just a few short months ago. It seemed, then, that the baseball world was hanging on every tweeted statement, every vaguely apologetic word in every vaguely apologetic press conference. The scandal was so big that it moved out of the world of sports reporting — one might argue that, given the broadness of media coverage, it was the biggest scandal in baseball history.

The Red Sox report has had just a fraction of this effect. But then, the Red Sox report has dropped into a world stricken by a global pandemic. Even right when the Astros report dropped, it was all pretty funny; even then, one could reasonably question whether it was all that big of a deal. Now, in the face of shattered societies and hundreds of thousands dead or ill, it’s almost laughable to think of a trash-can-centric sign-stealing scheme being a matter of national concern. Which raises the question: Did the cheating matter in the first place? Does cheating in baseball matter at all?

***

In a 1988 essay in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, Randolph Feezell put forward this argument: Sports players shouldn’t be permitted to cheat. On its face, it doesn’t seem like a very controversial proposition. But back in 1988, as is the case now, some argued that cheating is a natural part of sport, requiring no significant punishment. Indeed, certain sports philosophers had recently written essays to the effect that embracing cheating might enhance sport, allowing players to reach new athletic heights, offering novel innovations and sites of analysis. There has even been discussion as to whether there is a moral imperative to cheat in sports.

To Feezell, though, as compelling as these arguments could be, cheating — breaking the rules that constitute a game’s “prescriptive atmosphere” — can never be tolerated, because it amounts to the destruction of the game. A game is an artificial construct; it only exists because of a collective agreement that it does. To break that agreement is to break the game entirely.

But does it? One doesn’t have to look far in the history of baseball for examples of cheating that ended up becoming part of the game — the initial rejection of the curveball by some as a tool of deceitfulness is a well-known example. There are cases like Gaylord Perry’s spitter, where there is a collective acknowledgment that, while Perry did indeed alter the ball illegally, he is still worth recognizing as a great pitcher. And so many attempts at cheating, successful and unsuccessful, are among the most colorful moments in baseball history: Bill Veeck’s moveable wall, Maury Wills‘ big batter’s boxes. Baseball history is replete with such incidences, and it’s hard to find anyone saying that these examples of cheating resulted in the destruction of the sport’s integrity. Did those, then, not count as cheating? Does cheating need to be successful in order to be considered cheating? Does it need to be deceitful or covert, or can it be done openly and still count? And if we can’t even decide what really counts as cheating, how can we possibly decide on a fair response to it?

J.S. Russell, in his 2013 paper “Is There a Normatively Distinct Concept of Cheating in Sports (or anywhere else)?”, argues that we can’t. The reason why debates surrounding cheating always seem to go in circles is that “cheating” isn’t the real problem. Russell writes:

I think that describing some behavior as cheating is typically little more than expressing strong, but thoroughly vague and imprecise, moral disapproval or condemnation of another person or institution about a wide and ill-defined range of improper advantage-seeking behavior. Such expressions of disapproval fail to distinguish cheating from many other types of immoral conduct.

To anyone who follows sports on social media, Russell’s assessment of cheating accusations and debates rings astoundingly true. Despite the fact that it’s a game, and it’s all made up, I think most of the fraught conversations that can surround baseball end up being useful in some way. Part of why I think sports are important is their ability to shine a light on cultural issues, highlighting them for many people in a context that they can relate to and understand. Issues like structural racism, domestic violence, economic inequality — being a serious follower of baseball almost guarantees that you will have to contend with at least the existence of such problems. Whether or not the discussion ends up being productive is less certain, but there’s something to be said for being forced to engage with these issues at all.

But the discussion around cheating almost never seems to be productive. Whether cheating happened, the scope of the cheating, what should be done about it, whether it’s worth even caring about — there are never satisfactory answers. There is only the unease that comes from knowing that something is wrong and not knowing what should be done to fix it.

***

Russell’s conclusion puts forward, in place of the cheating debate, two possible schools of thought that could be used to consider illegal advantage-seeking in sports in the future. One he calls the amoralist view of sports. This is a view that embraces advantage-seeking — that definitely says that cheating doesn’t matter. That cheating might even be… awesome? Sports are entertainment, and the addition of obstacles and oddities in pursuit of gaining any possible advantage adds entertainment value for fans. One might consider the McGwire-Sosa home run race in this light: Sure, maybe they were using performance-enhancing drugs, but they were a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

Advantage-seeking can also drive players and teams to innovate, giving them more incentive to lift the game to its greatest possible heights. And, ultimately, sports aren’t real; sports consequences are not real consequences in the way that US State Department consequences are real consequences. Sports are a snow globe of human nature. Everything’s in there, from the best to the worst, contained safely in a bubble; all you have to do is watch it settle. Jon Bois presents this point of view in his and Alex Rubenstein’s excellent ongoing video series about the Mariners succinctly: “Getting mad about cheating in sports,” he says, “is like walking out of the movie theater because you disagree with the actions of Darth Vader.”

The alternative Russell offers for the amoralist view of sports is what he calls broad internalism. In this view, rules “require interpretation by general principles that are as much parts of sport and games as the rules themselves.” What those general principles are is difficult to nail down. Russell’s own belief is that the most plausible principle by which to interpret game rules is in the spirit of athletic competition. Advantage-seeking that undermines sport as a means of measuring athletic feats and prowess is thus a moral ill and should not be tolerated.

Russell himself acknowledges, though, that this isn’t a satisfactory answer to the amoralist conception. And the amoralist conception of sports, while pretty easy to accept initially — sports, the thing we all like watching because it’s fun! — still feels incomplete. Pieces of entertainment like movies and plays, while made by people as real as athletes, are self-contained; the lives being depicted on the screen or the stage are, generally speaking, not literally the artists’ real lives, playing out for you to see. But for athletes, what they are doing on the field is indeed their life. The consequences may not be real for us, but they are real for them. The things they do on the field that entertain you aren’t memorized from a script; no one will yell “cut,” no curtain will fall. They aren’t just playing a game — they are living it.

***

Does cheating matter? I’ve been researching and writing this piece for three months, reading dozens of journal articles and books, and I don’t exactly have an answer. Philosophers who spend their entire careers thinking about this question often don’t have answers, either, so I guess I’m not doing too badly. It still doesn’t feel right, though, not having an answer.

I keep coming back to Russell’s argument that the concept of cheating, used as a shorthand, obscures deeper issues in advantage-seeking in sports, and I wonder if the question of whether cheating matters is the wrong one to be asking.

Maybe the Astros’ trash can and the Red Sox’ replay screen don’t matter. Maybe it doesn’t matter which player or manager or executive is a cheater, and maybe it doesn’t matter whether they get suspended for one season or three.

What does matter is institutional accountability. What does matter is feeling like you’re able to trust institutions when they tell you that they’ve looked into it, that they’re doing everything they can to solve the problem, that they have a plan. People’s livelihoods matter. These are not just things that matter within the laws of the snow globe, pine tar on fingers, and cork in bats. They matter in real life. That, I think, is worth caring about.



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