Two now-irrelevant ethical questions in sports

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 replayThe 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.

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18 thoughts on “Two now-irrelevant ethical questions in sports

  1. Nigel says:

    I looked up the definition of cheater – someone who leads you to believe something that is not true. Suarez did not engage in deception, such as what Thierry Henry was guilty of, except in your loaded scenario above. It reminds me of a story told about Peter Swinnerton-Dyer by Miles Reid: At a tournament, Peter called over the referee, told him formally that he was not making an error or oversight, then bid 8 clubs. Although this bid is impossible, he had calculated that he would lose less going down in it than allowing his opponents to make their grand slam. He knew the wording of the rules of bridge, and the match referee was forced to accept the impossible bid, since it was not made by error or oversight; the rules were subsequently changed to block this obscure loophole.

  2. Chris says:

    Suarez did actually engage in deception, for what it’s worth — after the handball, he got back in position to play the ball again, and protested vigorously when shown the red card. Clearly not the actions of someone accepting the consequences of his breach of the rules; based on this, we can be sure that, if the ref hadn’t seen it, he wouldn’t have volunteered his foul.

    Peter Singer has written cogently about cheating in soccer in general, before the Suarez incident: He writes mainly about the case of players intentionally deceiving the referee and getting away with it.

  3. Greg Martin says:

    In the sport of Ultimate, any intentional infraction (whether or not calculated to be worth the consequences) is fundamentally considered cheating:
    Other sports, particularly when the athletes are paid, don’t seem to subscribe to this philosophy (whether they should is another philosophical question).

    Imagine a basketball player with a clear path to a layup, and a defender who has the opportunity to intentionally foul him from behind. Do you consider that sort of foul “cheating”? Do you think the player has the responsibility to declare the foul if for some reason the referee doesn’t call it?

  4. Nigel says:

    OK. Then I’d say Suarez tried to cheat in the immediate aftermath of the handball rather than in the handball itself.

  5. Harald says:

    Contrary to Nigel above, I do find it obvious that what Suarez did would have been unethical even if he had gone to hand himself in right after the handball. (Whether “cheating” is the most appropriate word is a different matter; I would think it is, in that cheating is not the same as deception, but that is in the end a definitional matter.) Any action that entails an automatic red card is a direct affront to the game. What made this worse than most was precisely that – to judge from his and his supporters’ comments – Suarez calculated matters well: by figuring that the fine was worth the benefit, Suarez was gaming the system.

    Surely we can also agree that a polluter who figures the fine is worth it is acting wrongly?

  6. JSE says:

    The basketball analogy is a very good one, Greg. In the example you give, yes, I think it’s cheating to intentionally hack at a guy trying to make a shot and hope the ref misses it.

    But I do think that basketball, alone among the sports I follow closely, uses the “strategic foul” as an essential part of the game. If time’s running out, and I’m down two points, and the other team has the ball, yes, my team fouls and hopes for missed shots, and this is in no way “cheating.”

    As per my answer to question 1, I think philosophical diversity in sports is a good thing, and if the serious soccer fans here think that Suarez’s handball was analogous to a last-second foul to regain possession in a basketball game, I’ll reconsider. But I think the wave of controversy around Suarez suggests this isn’t really the case.

    One difference: in the basketball scenario you actually don’t get the benefit unless the referee calls the foul! I think this might matter.

  7. JSE says:

    Harald: sorry, I packed it in too tight. That tends to be what _I_ would think about the polluter, but certainly polluters themselves make the case that what they’re doing is “choosing between two options, one of which comes with a legal penalty,” not “being criminals.” Maybe a less loaded example — or an example that’s loaded in a different direction — would be to compare Suarez to a US homeowner who intentionally defaults on her mortgage. Wrong or not?

    I also agree that Suarez’s post-game comments makes me less sympathetic to his cause, but I can’t decide whether I’m justified in this respect.

  8. Harald says:

    What particularly rankles me about Suarez’s actions has little to do with Suarez as an individual. Rather, the problem is precisely that this kind of behaviour is seen as acceptable in other situations in social life. In principle you could see him as setting a rather poor example (or at least revealing that some of your friends were less ethical than you thought).

    The (rule violation) -> (red card) scenario (or: pollution -> fine) is not a morally neutral exchange, to be taken whenever it is to one’s advantage. We are talking about punishment for a fault.

    This sort of attempt at getting around the rules might be seen as acceptable in the business world, when done by one business to another. However, we, as the rest of society, have the right to impose on businesses certain basic rules when dealing with us. We also have the right (and the duty) to keep this sort of (lack of) ethics from permeating sport, or mathematics, or what have you.

  9. Nigel says:

    If someone is looking to soccer for moral guidance, they’re going to be sadly misguided. It’s full of fouls. Look at the game yesterday, where the Dutch set out to close down the Spanish quite viciously. Are they all cheats? I’m told that the Suarez incident began with a wrongly called free kick followed by offside by two Ghanaian players, which the Ghanaians didn’t come clean about. If every rule infringement in soccer is a cheat, the word will become so overworked as to lose meaning.

  10. Harald says:

    The Dutch team has lost plenty of support (for instance, mine) due to the way it plays football. Moreover, as I said, it is clear how this is different from other examples: we are not talking just about a violation of the rules, but about a cynical exploitation of the rules.

  11. Nigel says:

    I’d say the Dutch were cynically exploiting the rules, taking advantage of the English referee Webb’s public stance that he would try to keep all players on the field in big matches. Also, doesn’t the fact that it was a premeditated strategy make it more cynical than Suarez’s spur-of-the-moment decision?

  12. anonymous says:

    You can say the Dutch didn’t play as well as Spain, but it’s rather strange to lose support for them because they play rough. Does one blame a basketball team that plays physical?

    Also, Suarez didn’t cheat, just like basketball players intentionally foul in order to stop a basket. Everyone who watches soccer know that. It’s just when one’s on the losing end that one starts to complain. If one is looking for cheating instances in this World Cup, the phantom offside calls that wrongly disallowed the US goals and the ignored England goal against Germany would be ten times more shocking.

  13. Harald says:

    >but it’s rather strange to lose support for them because they >play rough. Does one blame a basketball team that plays >physical?

    >Everyone who watches soccer know that. It’s just when one’s on >the losing end that one starts to complain.

    Nonsense. As has said before, the analogy with basketball is fallacious.

    “Playing physical” is a euphemism here. There is a very good expression for “playing rough” in football already – namely, playing rough.

    >the ignored England goal against Germany would be ten times >more shocking.

    How on earth is that cheating? Are you suggesting the linesman was bought?

    This just in, btw, from the Guardian:

    “Johan Cruyff has launched a scathing attack on Holland’s performance in their 1-0 defeat to Spain in the World Cup final last night, slamming their “dirty” tactics and their style of “anti-football”.

    Thanks, Mr. Cruyff.


    At any rate – if this matter has any relevance, it is precisely because these ethical questions bleed across fields. We are now seeing how examples from other sports are used to lower (or eliminate) ethical standards in football. In a similar way, I believe many of us have been in a situation where a fellow mathematician has behaved unethically, and has tried to justify his position by arguments that may seem well suited to someone involved in a hostile takeover.

    The common thread in these situations is not just that low standards are infectious – it is also that lower standards elsewhere are used not just to lower ours, but to deny the idea that there should be any ethical standards as such, as opposed to penalties or the lack thereof as an element in someone’s calculation.

  14. Greg Martin says:

    well, depends on the severity of the foul I guess … :)

    One could, I suppose, consider an intentional walk as “cheating” as much as fouling at the end of a game down by two points.

  15. David says:

    As an aside, I’m not sure that the thought experiment in (2) [what if the referee didn’t see the handball?] is consistent with the argument in (1). In football, reality is also what the referee decrees.

  16. Concerning the world cup, at least the discussion revolves around individual/team behavior, which may be some progress compared with not-so-old history.

    Although I have no real memory of the Argentina 1978 cup, I have a vague memory that a referee gave a penalty kick to Argentina in the first round, which everyone saw as naked corruption (though, since I believe it was against the French, I might have heard only biased accounts…). [The Dutch lost the final then; presumably, the outcome might have been different if Cruyff had played, but I have heard that he had refused to participate in the competition because of the dictatorship in Argentina had the time.]

    In Spain in 1982, if memory serves, the spaniards also got a “free” penalty (and a completely ridiculous red card against one of their opponents in the first round), and this was interpreted as a helping hand to the home team. Even before, I think that the first-round groups had been predicted with near 100% precision a few days or weeks before they were “randomly” drawn… (Not to mention the infamous Austria-Germany game, or the time when one high-ranking Kuwaiti official went down on the field and convinced the referee to cancel a French goal, etc…)

  17. harrison says:

    Not only is strategic fouling not accepted in football the same way it is in basketball, but there have been changes made to the rules of the game to discourage that kind of behavior!

    Obviously Suarez’ handball was pretty spur-of-the-moment, but it would have basically been a rational decision — he had virtually no incentive to avoid the intentional foul. Had he not handballed, of course, Ghana would have certainly won the game. But even disregarding the possibility of blatant cheating (like handballing the goal out, and then denying it to the ref if he didn’t see it) there’s no downside for that specific game to Suarez being sent off, since there was literally no time to complete another play before penalties.

    So Suarez took advantage, albeit unconsciously, of a wide loophole in the strategic-fouling rules, and it paid off. The only difference between that and, say, the Hack-a-Shaq strategy is that strategic fouling is normal behavior in basketball, but it’s generally frowned-upon in football.

  18. harrison says:

    Another difference from the other examples: Intentional fouling in basketball, illegally swatting away a certain last-minute gamewinning goal, and blowing the last call of an otherwise perfect game might upset players or fans, but none of them have the potential to cause serious physical injury to others. (At least not directly.)

    The way that the Netherlands played on Sunday, however, was actively dangerous to the Spanish players.

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