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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Cheating and Sports, Part III: The Claims of Community

One of my earlier posts asked, "What are the rules about breaking the rules?" It wondered why certain forms of cheating are permitted (e.g., Gaylord Perry throwing spitters and not only getting away with it but being inducted into the Hall of Fame) while others are not (e.g., taking performance-enhancing drugs). Since that post a few incidents of cheating have occurred (e.g., Derek Jeter faking that he was hit by a pitch) that have been hailed by some as examples of "heads-up play," so again I can't help but wonder what the rules about breaking the rules are.

I can't say that I've resolved the issue, but I am beginning to think that it has something to do with whether the primary motivation lying behind the cheating is to benefit the team (i.e., winning the game is why one does it) or the individual (i.e., enhancing personal statistics). To be sure, the line between the two is blurry. When Derek Jeter faked that he was hit by a pitch, he did enhance his personal statistics (he was in a slump at the time, so the odds weren't good that he would get a hit), but still I think most people saw what he did as increasing the chances that the Yankees would win the game.  By contrast, although the Giants as a team benefited when Barry Bonds repeatedly launched baseballs into McCovey Cove, most fans (or at least most non-Giants fans) saw the underlying motivation as personal (i.e., being the all-time season and career home run hitter). (As an aside, I do think it is instructive that the Giants won their first World Series without any position player in pursuit of a major record)

Put differently, when it is the claims of community (in this case, the claims of a player's team) that are the driving motivation lying behind a player choosing to cheat in a sporting event, then it is considered to be OK to break the rules. However, if it is personal glory that is driving the cheating, then it isn't considered OK.  This is not to say that players and fans are consciously aware of what these claims are, and, as I noted above, the line between doing something for the team and doing something for oneself is often blurry (e.g., not everyone "cheered" Jeter's heads-up play). Nevertheless, I'm fairly certain that the form of  moral reasoning outlined here is often what lies behind determining what the rules are for breaking the rules.

Indeed, I would even go farther than that. I am willing to argue that most moral reasoning, whether in sports, in politics or in life, is driven by the values of the communities in which we live and move and have our being, which is why when we debate about what is right and just, we often talk right past one another, not necessarily because we don't respect one another but because we begin from different conceptions we are called as individuals and as a community to be.

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