Meant to blog about both of these weeks ago; now the sporting events in question are already semi-forgotten but I think the ethical questions still function.
1. With two outs in the ninth inning, umpire Jim Joyce blew a call at first base, denying Armando Galarraga a perfect game. Should the baseball commissioner have overturned it?
This one is an easy no. Am I saying it’s OK that the umpire called a runner safe when he was really out? No — I’m saying that, in baseball, reality is by definition what the umpire decrees.
But then why does baseball have such precisely described rules? Why do we have the infield fly rule, or the exact delineation of the strike zone, or the rule that the batter is awarded three bases if an outfielder catches a fly ball in his cap? Why not just have the umpire make impressionistic decisions about who’s out and who’s safe?
I don’t have a good answer, except to say that this tension is part of the sport’s charm. It mimics the larger social world, in which we maintain a gigantic corpus of “official” rules while, in practice, relying on a flexible network of shared intuitions and traditions.
Different sports have different ontological stances. This diversity is a good thing. Fans who don’t care for baseball’s position are welcome to watch a sport more suited to their philosophical tastes, like tennis, where robots make the calls.
Further notes: I’ll bet every perfect game ever pitched involved a home plate umpire calling a more pitcher-friendly strike zone than the one in the rulebook. Baseball players think Joyce’s call should stand and don’t want instant replay. The Baseball Reference Blog is with me too.
2. Is Luis Suarez a cheater?
Suarez is the Uruguayan who hand-blocked a certain goal from Ghana in the final minute of a tie game; when Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan missed the ensuing penalty kick, the game went to a shootout, and Uruguay eventually won.
This one is harder, but the answer is “yes.” The “he didn’t cheat” argument has two prongs. First: “You have to do whatever maximizes the chance your team will win. Any player would have done the same thing.” The latter might be the case. The former is true only for certain values of “whatever,” so the question at hand is untouched.
The second prong says that Suarez, like a polluter who pays a fine rather than clean up the factory, didn’t cheat — he took an action whose consequences (a direct penalty kick for Ghana) he understood and accepted. This would have some force if Suarez had knocked the ball out with his hand, then immediately announced that he had done so and would be expecting a red card. But what if the referee hadn’t seen the handball? Surely everyone agrees Suarez wouldn’t have turned himself in. In that case, wouldn’t people agree he’d cheated? If so, how can the question of whether he cheated depend on whether he got caught?
Further note: in case you think I’m just a scolding athletic ninny, remember that I don’t think Barry Bonds is a cheater.