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Monday, August 30, 2010

Cheating and Sports, Part I: What are the Rules about Breaking the Rules?

Seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens was recently indicted by a grand jury for lying under oath to Congress about whether he used performance-enhancing drugs during his career. Seven-time Most Valuable Player Award winner Barry Bonds is coming up for trial next March on similar charges. And seven-time (what is it about seven?) Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong is in danger of following in Clemens's and Bonds's footsteps.

They, of course, are not alone. Sammy Sosa, Miguel Tejada, Eric Gagne, Andy Pettitte, Mark McGuire, Floyd Landis, Dana Stubblefield, Marion Jones and Alex Rodriguez have all been tied to the use of performance-enhancing drugs such as steroids. And steroids are not the first drug that athletes have turned to in order to boost their performance. At least since the 1960s professional baseball players have taken "greenies" (amphetamines) for a little pick-me-up before the game when the drug used by most Americans (i.e., coffee) wasn't enough. Alcohol is also used widely by professional athletes as a means for taking the edge off the incredible pressure they face day in and day out (most of us don't have 50,000 fans watching us while we work!). (Note: Heavy drinking after games is often why greenies are needed before games.)

What I'm curious about is why are certain forms of cheating in sports okay while others are not?  That's right. Cheating has been a constant in sports from its inception, and some kinds appear to be tolerated as long as one doesn't get caught. Take for instance the case of
Gaylord Perry, who regularly threw a "spitter," an illegal pitch, but that didn't stop him from being voted into the Hall of Fame by sportswriters who should have been very well aware that Perry cheated since Perry's autobiography, entitled "Me and the Spitter" was published in 1974, and he wasn't inducted into the Hall of Fame until 1991!

And as Ross Douthat recently noted in a column for the New York Times, NY Giant Bobby Thomson's miracle home run ("The Shot Heard 'Round the World") against the Dodgers may have had a little illegal help. According to Joshua Prager’s book on the 1951 pennant race, "The Echoing Green," the Giants manager, Leo Durocher, devised a sign-stealing system, using a telescopic lens located in center field, that the Giants used over the last 10 weeks of the season, during which time the Giants made up an amazing 13 games on the Dodgers, a chase that culminated with Thompson's home run, a home run that sent the Giants to the World Series and the Dodgers home for the winter. But the type of cheating associated Perry and the Giants doesn't seem to bother too many people.

Why? I'm not sure. But I am curious. To paraphrase Yale Law School Professor Stephen Carter, I want to know "what the rules are about breaking the rules." To quote Carter from his book "Integrity":
A couple of years ago as I sat watching a televised football game... I was struck by an event I had often noticed but on which I had never reflected. A player who failed to catch a ball thrown his way hit the ground, rolled over, and then jumped up, celebrating as though he had caught the pass after all.  The referee was standing in a position that did not give him a good view of what had happened, was fooled by the player's pretense, and so moved the ball down the field... But viewers at home... saw what the referee missed: the ball lying on the ground instead of snug in the receiver's hands. The only comment from the broadcasters: "What a heads-up play!" Meaning: "Wow, what a great liar this kid is! Well done!
Let's be very clear: that is exactly what they meant. The player set out to mislead the referee and succeeded; he helped his team to obtain an advantage in the game that it had not earned. It could not have been accidental. He knew he did not catch the ball. By jumping up and celebrating, he was trying to convey a false impression. He was trying to convince the officials that he had caught the ball. And the officials believed him.  So, in any ordinary understanding of the word, he lied...
When I began working on this book, I shared the story about the cheating football player with a few of my colleagues over lunch... They offered a bewildering array of fascinating and sophisticated arguments on why the receiver who pretended to catch the ball was doing nothing wrong. One in particular stuck in my mind. "You don't know if he was breaking the rules," of the best and brightest of my colleagues explained, "until you know what the rules are about following the rules." 
I don't know what the rules are about following the rules, and I suspect that most athletes (except, perhaps, golfers) know what they are either. That is why I think that before we nail Clemens, Bonds, possibly Armstrong, Rodriguez and others to a tree, we probably should consider that the fuzzy line between permissible and impermissible cheating helped contribute to the rise of the steroid era.


  1. What about deceiving the competition? Is that within the rules? For example, a runner on first base tries to steal second. The throw from the catcher is high. The second baseman fakes as if the throw went into into center field. The runner steps off the bag to start going to third and the second baseman tags the runner out. A scenario similar to this happened with Brandon Phillips in the All Star game this year. Is this kind of deception allowed because the deception is toward the opponent and not the umpires?

  2. I don't think deceiving an opposing player as you describe actually breaks any rules. However, pretending to catch a pass that one didn't does. That said, the line between the two isn't a distinct as one might expect. Deceiving the umpire is considered just as OK as deceiving an opposing player as long as you don't get caught.