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Wednesday, February 4, 2015

What Are the Rules About Breaking the Rules? (Or: Why I Can't Root for Pete Carroll)

"If you're not cheating, you're not trying hard enough" 
-- Mark Grace, Chicago Cubs 1st Baseman

Much ink has been spilled about Deflate-gate (or my favorite, "Ballghazi"), the claim that the New England Patriots intentionally used deflated balls during the AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Colts. As I noted before, the controversy seems a bit overblown since it is quite common for teams to "cheat" in order to gain an advantage over their opponents. To wit:
  • Defensive backs regularly hold and bump receivers illegally, knowing they will only be penalized a fraction of the time. The Seahawks are notorious for doing this, as a Wall Street Journal article pointed out last year ("The Seahawks' Grabby Talons"), but they are hardly alone.
  • Pitchers doctor baseballs in order to get them to break in unexpected ways. Gaylord Perry made a career of doing this and even admitted as much in his autobiography, Me and the Spitter: An Autobiographical Confession. This didn't keep him out of the Hall of Fame, either. He published the book in 1974 but wasn't elected to the Hall of Fame until 1991.
  • Basketball players routinely foul their counterparts, but seldom, if ever, do they mention this to the referees. Can you imagine Lebron James saying to a ref, "Hey! I fouled that guy back there. You probably should let him shoot two" (yeah, right).
  • Baseball teams are constantly attempting to steal the signs flashed by catchers to their pitchers, whether its batters positioning themselves in the on-deck circle so they can see the signs or runners on second base taking a quick look before they lead off. Perhaps the best known instance of sign-stealing is the one that culminated with Bobby Thompson's "shot heard 'round the world" that sent the Giants to the World Series and the Dodgers home for the winter (I love it when that happens). It turns out that 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 13 games on the Dodgers.
There's no doubt that these examples count as cheating, but as Yale Law School Professor Stephen Carter noted several years ago in his book, "Integrity," there are rules about breaking the rules:
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."
So what are the rules about breaking the rules? I think the basic rule is this: it's okay to break them, but if you get caught you suffer the consequences. That is, if you throw a spitter and the umpire catches you, you'll be thrown out of the game. Or if you interfere with a receiver trying to catch a ball, you'll be penalized if the referee catches you. Or if you're a college football coach who pushes the limits of recruiting, and you get busted, then you and your program will pay the price.

Unless, of course, your Pete Carroll. Then you simply abandon ship and move to Seattle.

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