By accusing the Yankees of stealing signs this week, Rangers catcher Yorvit Torrealba forced us to dredge up the most played out debate in sports: Is stealing signs cheating?While this debate is overwhelmingly annoying, it tells us something about how we understand what is fair and what is unfair.
A sport is constructed by a set of arbitrary rules. If any of these are broken, the sport collapses onto itself.
If a basketball player decides to run around with the ball under his arm like a loaf of bread, the sport collapses. If a baseball pitcher places a bet that he will lose the game, the sport collapses.
So cheating in sports is not just a moral issue, it’s an existential one. And that’s why the backlash is so pronounced whenever an instance of cheating is uncovered.
But contradictions begin to develop when we try to define what cheating is.
There are some violations that are obviously cheating: breaking simple rules of the game (running around with a basketball), using cameras to spy on other teams, etc.
But there are a lot more things that may or may not be violations at all.
Take steroids, for example.
We all refer to steroids users as “cheaters.” They’ll always be defined by their use of steroids. They’ll be blacklisted from Major League Baseball. And they’ll never be in the Hall of Fame.
It might be an overreaction, but it’s necessary to maintain the legitimacy of the sport itself.
But there are a slew of other questionable medical practices that are commonly accepted parts of the game.
Harvesting the tendon in a player’s knee and using it to tie his elbow together is not considered cheating. We know this because dozens of pitchers have this procedure — Tommy John surgery — every year. You could make an argument that Tommy John is more extra-human than bulking up on steroids, yet there is zero backlash against it.
I’m not saying that Tommy John patients are cheaters, I’m just trying to show that the way we construct “fair” and “unfair” is inconsistent.
In baseball, the kind of first-hand sign stealing that the Yankees allegedly engaged in this week is widely considered “a part of the game”. But when the the Rockies accused the Phillies of using bullpen binoculars to steal signs last year, the Phils were decried as cheaters.
There’s a difference, it seems, between obtaining a competitive advantage using human faculties and obtaining one using technology.
But it only takes about five seconds to think of examples of where this ethical difference disappears.
For instance players routinely go back into the clubhouse during games to watch their at-bats on TV to see if they can pick something up.
So why is using technology to steal signs cheating, but using technology to make swing changes is fair game?
It seems that there’s no standard for how we identify cheaters. We pile on athletes for doing one thing, then let a nearly identical violation slide.
Maybe the only solution is to accept that calling someone a cheater is an intuitive judgment. We know it when we see it, and that’s the best we can do.
This is a deeply unsatisfying conclusion. But ultimately there will always be cheating in sports, and there will always be people doing something very similar with no repercussions.
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