The narrative in the sports world this week was dominated with the bruhaha around the Houston Astros cheating scandal. For those that don’t read the sports page, Major League Baseball suspended Astros Manager, A.J. Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow for orchestrating a sophisticated signal stealing scheme dating back to their 2017 championship team. The two were subsequently fired by the Astros. The Astros will also pay a $5M fine and will lose future draft picks.
Lots of things are being asked by fans. Who else was involved? Should the Astros lose their title? Those are good questions, but the question for me isn’t who did what and whether their penalty was severe enough, but rather, where is the line between maximizing your advantage and actual cheating – and is cheating in sports really that uncommon? There is something about this scandal that bugs me and I think it is how outraged baseball fans seem to get over this sort of thing. They talk about how much honor there used to be in the sport and how anyone who cheats should be banned for life. Hmmm…I must admit; these days, anyone who longs for the good-ole-days reminds me of something else, and I think you know what I mean. Frankly, I think this kind of thing has been going on since Ty Cobb and Cy Young were playing.
When a basketball player fakes a foul, aka “flopping”, is he competing or his he cheating? Is a football player cheating when he pretends he made a catch even though he knows the ball hit the ground? A few years back it used to be illegal to count cards when playing blackjack in Nevada casinos. It was considered cheating and a player could actually be arrested if they were caught keeping track of the cards. In theory, good card counters can improve their odds of winning because by knowing which cards have already been played, they can anticipate what cards are likely to come next. Apparently, casinos don’t like that…However, a Nevada court determined that it was not illegal to count cards, because players were just using information that is available to them to make better judgements. However, the court also said that the casinos still had the right to choose not do business with card counters, and therefore could ban a card counter from playing in their casino. Basically, the courts told the casinos to chill out – you can have your rules, and if somebody breaks the rules you can ask them to leave, but nobody is going to jail.
I never was a baseball player, but my sense is that this isn’t the first time a team has tried to the steal the signals of another team. Was the difference in this case that technology was used? Perhaps. Nonetheless, it’s only a game. Sports, especially baseball, are not sacred. Players and coaches have been searching for every advantage since the beginning of time, and yes sometimes they cross the line. Do I think the Astros crossed that line on this occasion? Yes, I think so, and therefore there should be a penalty. But let’s not pretend it was something bigger than that. Players in all sports sometimes cheat, it’s part of the game, and if you get caught, take your punishment like a man (or woman) and move on. That goes for the fans as well…The NBA and NCAA recently made flopping an infraction. A player who fakes a foul could receive a technical foul. That sounds about right to me.
The NFL markets its brand as well as any enterprise in the world. I heard a comedian once say that the NFL is so popular, it has its own day. NFL football is huge. Each NFL franchise brings in approximately $400M a year in revenue; almost double the annual revenue of NBA teams and 2 ½ times as much as MLB clubs.