Is Cheating Just Part of the Game?

December 31st, 2010 at 1:54 pm | 7 Comments |

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Media and fans feasted on recent news that Jets coaches and players formed a “human wall” on the sidelines to impede opponents’ specialty teams.  Most observers were outraged by the breach of sportsmanship, case but some argued that the Jets were merely doing what competitors do: pushing the envelope to gain an advantage.

This debate may have given you a sense of déjà vu.  Remember when Derek Jeter faked being hit by a pitch and fooled the umpire into awarding him first base?  Or when Alex Rodriguez screamed “mine” as he rounded the bases, tricking an opposing infielder into letting a fly-ball drop?  How about when a basketball team sneaks Player X to the free throw line instead of Player Y (the one who’d been fouled), because X is the better foul shooter?

These examples, which could be multiplied, all raise the same question: is it acceptable for athletes to engage in chicanery?  Some see no problem, and a very slippery slope if we worry about these things.  If today we indict players who flop to draw fouls, tomorrow we’ll condemn the outfielder who pretends he caught a ball he trapped, and before long we’ll be demanding that players ask the officials to overcall a bad call in their favor.  Let the players play and the officials officiate.  Competitive athletes will always get away with what they can.

But the slippery slope runs in both directions.  If “anything goes,” then doctoring the baseball is fine – let the umpires catch it (or not).  Ditto corked bats.  How about slugging an opponent when the referee turns his back?  Getting away with whatever you can is not a prescription for healthy competition, but rather a form of anarchy that rewards the least scrupulous.

I’ve presented this as a debate between those who endorse bending the rules and those who advocate sportsmanship.  In the real world, it’s less black and white.  From dispute to dispute, people take different positions.  You may find it fine for a player to fake being hit but think the Jets crossed the line with the human wall.  Others may insist the reverse.  And as long as each case is approached ad hoc, we won’t get anywhere in delineating appropriate behavior.

I propose a three-part approach to provide guidance for all cases of questionable behavior.  First, rulebooks should be written with greater specificity.  When Alex Rodriguez screamed “mine,” some major leaguers claimed he violated an unwritten rule while others professed unawareness of any such taboo.  As Yogi Berra may have said, unwritten rules aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

If we don’t want football teams forming a wall out of bounds, ban it.  If we don’t want basketball players sneaking the wrong player to the line, punish the attempt.  In other words, rather than leave these decisions to players and coaches, let’s clarify the matter in advance.  Most people who were outraged by A-Rod’s “mine” are untroubled by the hidden ball trick.  Why?  Because the latter is an officially accepted ploy, with specific rules governing its use.  That’s key – a rulebook that clarifies what is and isn’t acceptable.

But the rulebook can never cover all potential behavior.  Hence my second step: recognize a spirit of the rules.  Whether or not football specifically prohibits a sideline wall, it clearly contemplates that only 11 players on each team are supposed to participate in a play.  The wall violates the spirit of that rule.  Similarly, the non-fouled player who sneaks to the free throw line is clearly trying to circumvent the rule that the player fouled is the one who shoots the free throws.

Interestingly, of the examples I’ve raised, the one that may be least objectionable is Alex Rodriguez screaming “mine.”  It’s not at all clear that A-Rod violated the spirit of any rule.

It doesn’t follow that such behavior should be accepted.  There’s something to be said for a general pro-sportsmanship understanding or default position that’s pro-sportsmanship.  Winning isn’t everything.  Who wants to win in a way that calls into question his victory or character and leaves his opponent feeling cheated?  Of course, a general pro-sportsmanship rule can offer only limited guidance.  Accordingly, here’s the practical rule: If you have to ask, don’t do it.

Recent Posts by Alan Hirsch



7 Comments so far ↓

  • PracticalGirl

    Pushing the envelope to gain an edge or cheating? Depends on the messenger, I guess.

    No better example this year than at the college level in the PAC 10 where nearly every opponent the Oregon Ducks faced had nine kinds of trouble keeping up with the offense. Fans began to get suspicious of the “injuries” on the field, especially when a defensive player-so debilitated as to need an injury time-out and get helped off the field- hops back into the game the very next series. Sports writers began to take note, all the coaches denied “gaming” Oregon, and everybody was appalled with the Oregon fans who had begun to “boo” the injured. Not when they left the game, only when they came right back in but still…We were all deemed paranoid.

    Right up until Cal’s head coach admitted that one of his assistants had, in fact, “coached” his players to fake injuries when the pace of the Duck offense was kicking their butts. I respect the coach for copping to it, but I think his explanation (that he didn’t know about it) was the most suspect thing of the entire affair. Several teams did the same thing this year. Too bad for them, it didn’t work. I’m with you on punishing the attempt. If a player (expecially a young one in college) is so banged up he needs an injury time out, then he shouldn’t be allowed to go back in until he’ been properly evaluated by medical professionals on the sidelines. It should be a rule: Leave the game injured, sit out at LEAST one series of downs.

    GO, DUCKS! See you all in Glendale. I’ll be the one wearing the yellow T-shirt and the big smile.

  • WaStateUrbanGOPer

    What’s really mind boggling about the Sal Alosi controversy is that HE was fined nothing, and his team, the Jets, were ONLY fined 100K.

    Bill Belichick had to pony up half a million dollars OUT OF HIS OWN POCKET for video taping opponents’ signals– a practice that, while admittedly dishonest and unsportsmanlike, posed absolutely no physical harm to the players. Sal Alosi owes the NFL not so much as a penny for a sociopathic stunt that could have ended the career of a talented young player.

    Just one more reminder that Roger Goodell is a local worthy in the tri-state area. The man didn’t think that Antonio Pierce committing obstruction of justice in relation to a felony gun crime was such a big deal, but he saw to it that Wes Welker got hit with a 10K fine for making a snow angel in the end-zone. How grotesque.

  • MurrayAbraham

    I thought soccer had the monopoly on faking fouls. At least that’s what soccer haters were constantly saying during the World Cup.

  • balconesfault

    One could argue that for Basketball and Football, at least, cheating IS just part of the game.

    For example, it’s blatantly cheating if an offensive lineman, beat by the defensive end, reaches out and grabs the defender before he can reach the quarterback. For this, of course, his team is penalized if the official sees/calls the violation … but the game has a very set penalty determined to be proportionate to the crime. The lineman doesn’t immediately get thrown from the game, much less the team having to forfeit for the cheating.

    Think of a basketball player who decides to deny an opponent a cheap layup by physically pounding him out of bounds while the other is trying to make his shot. Same deal. Obvious cheating, set penalty. Part of the game.

    Then look at sports where cheating ISN’T part of the game. Golf. The most minor infraction, even if accidental and subsequently reported by the golfer who committed it, is punishable by disqualification. In a marathon, if a runner slices a portion off the course, they don’t just make him add some distance at the end, or tack some time onto his finish. They disqualify him.

    Soccer has kind of a hybrid system. Cheating gets you a card, as well as a penalty for your team. Cheat a second time and you get thrown from the game.

    Although this is kind of a cute question, in an era where the difference between winning and losing can be worth tens of millions for a franchise, and even hundreds of thousands for an individual.

    “Who wants to win in a way that calls into question his victory or character and leaves his opponent feeling cheated? ”

    Ummm … duh?

  • JeninCT

    I am disgusted that Alosi was not fired. This wasn’t a psychological trick against another player, like what A Rod did. This was a COACH. He should’ve been fired, period. There is pushing the envelope, and there’s blatant cheating. This was clearly blatant cheating.

  • Carney

    What I’m troubled by is when rule-breaking becomes a widely-accepted, routine part of strategy, like fouling in basketball. Fouling, or drawing/falsely claiming fouls is a deliberate part of clock management.

    “Hack a Shaq” (deliberately fouling Shaquille O’Neal) became a common tactic, because it is well-known that O’Neal is (or was) unstoppable in driving toward the basket, but awful on the free-throw line. Opposing teams would husband their “allowed” fouls, and spread them out the assigned Shaq-fouling among their players (and thus put downward pressure on his scoring).

  • forkboy1965

    Not to get too far off topic, but this article brings out an interesting parallel.

    The author is calling for greater specificity in the rulebook for various sports in an attempt to clearly delineate what is right and wrong during the course of play. I don’t necessarily disagree either, but I can imagine it would become a very large rulebook for any given sport.

    Which brings me to the long-preached battle cry of many in the GOP: we need a simpler tax code. The problem being there is no way to have a simple tax code as long as there are people and companies out there who will do anything and everything they can to violate if not the letter of the law, at the very least the spirit or intent of said law.

    The huge tax code we have is a direct result of taxpayers getting ‘creative’ in an attempt to mitigate (either legally or illegally) their tax burden. As such, tax codes get larger and larger to fight back against the never-ending creativity of the tax paying public.

    How about that? Tax policy and sports all in one article.