Category Archives: Cheating

No Russians in Rio?

The Olympics start up in a few weeks and there is a very real chance that the entire Russian Olympic team will be banned because of doping allegations. The Track and Field team is already banned from Rio, but with the mounting evidence of a state-sponsored doping program in Russia, the IOC is considering banning the entire Russian delegation.

The allegations are serious. There appears to be substantial evidence that this was not merely the work of a few lone individuals working to circumvent the anti-doping rules, but that this was an orchestrated program involving government officials and agents, including the FSB, and a large number of athletes, coaches, and trainers throughout Russian sport establishment.

An Olympic ban for the entire delegation is also quite serious. Such a move would be unprecedented in the modern history of the games. It would send shockwaves through the Olympic movement and throughout Russia.

The full ban is also quite the moral quandary. It’s a conflict of two important aspects of justice: never harm an innocent and always punish the guilty.

Banning the entire delegation means that many Russian athletes with no involvement in the doping program will not be allowed to compete and fulfill their life’s dream and work. For many, Rio is their only Olympic opportunity. The ban would be inflicting a harm on these innocent athletes.

Allowing the Russian delegation, however, suggests that nations (if they are powerful enough) can get away with bypassing the anti-doping rules with little consequence. If the reports and allegations are true, then a large number of the doping Russian athletes would still be competing in Rio. It seems to allow the guilty to get away with, even profit from, their wrongdoing.

While I can imagine scenarios where collective punishments are the only or all things considered best option, prima facie they are unjust because (1) they minimize individual responsibility and (2) they sweep in innocents and punish the undeserving. In a conflict between harming innocents and letting the guilty go free, it is better to err on the side of letting the guilty go free. The harm done to an innocent person can never fully be repaired or restored. Furthermore, you will likely have an opportunity in the future to get the guilty person.

For this reason, I think it would be wrong for the IOC to flat out ban all Russians from competing in Rio. One compromise position might have been to retest Russian athletes and only allow those who pass the tests to compete. Unfortunately, there probably isn’t time for that. A second compromise position, one more feasible, is to ban any one—coach, athlete, official, etc., implicated in the investigations, but allow the others to compete. This appears to be the current status of things unless the IOC decides to go the route of the collective ban.

The flat out full ban on Russian athletes would harm the athletes and the spectators the most. The athletes might have had little choice in being part of the doping program and the spectators had no role. Moreover, the full ban wouldn’t really hit the government officials and leaders who orchestrated the doping program. A punishment that might, however, would be to pull all major sporting events from Russia. The IOC statement on July 19, 2016 already called for this. If major events, like world championships, qualifying events, or even the World Cup, where pulled from Russia, that would be a significant blow to Russia prestige. Since the whole doping program came into being to increase Russia prestige, this punishment fits the ‘crime’ better. It also wouldn’t harm clean Russian athletes who would still be able to compete in such events.

So after the IOC makes its decision about the Russians in Rio, the pressure will shift to FIFA and the possibility of pulling the World Cup.

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Filed under Cheating, doping, Olympics, PEDs, World Cup

All Is Not Well: Responding to the Wells Report on Deflategate

Opening Statement

Let me get this out of the way. I am a life-long Patriots fan. Many will surely dismiss anything I have to say based on this. (See ad hominem). But as a sports fan, as a philosopher of sport, I take this issue quite seriously. I read the Wells’ report closely. I endeavored, as always, to read it objectively, fairly, and charitably. If you know me, you know that I mean that and that I would never try to defend something I didn’t think I had good reason to believe. If you are going to dismiss my thoughts on the basis of my fandom, let me suggest that you are the one failing to be objective.

Overall Response to the Report

I read the Well’s report except for the more detailed scientific appendices. I think the report provides convincing evidence that (1) something more than natural processes affected the inflation of the footballs and (2) that Jim McNally and John Jastremski are the likely culprits for that something.

This is a change for me. Before the report, I didn’t think there was any intentional tampering. But I am now convinced that McNally and Jastremski did tamper. (I should note that some are challenging the validity of the scientific claims or at least the credentials of the scientists used by the NFL. I am not in position to evaluate these claims and so I leave it aside.)

What Brady Knew

I am, however, rather surprised by the report’s hasty conclusion that is more probable than not that Tom Brady was “at least generally aware of the inappropriate activities.” The evidence in the report, while not inconsistent with such a conclusion, doesn’t establish this as the most plausible and probable conclusion. It rests on the following claims (in no particular order):

  1. McNally and Jastremski mention Brady in their texts while seemingly discussing matters of football inflation. In Wells’ words “Brady is a constant reference point” (127)
  2. Brady and Jastremski had several phone and in-person meetings following the AFC Championship game. Wells says there was “a material increase in the frequency of telephone and text communications” (127).
  3. McNally received various autographed materials.
  4. Brady didn’t turn over his phone or emails to investigators.
  5. The investigators assumption that McNally and Jastremski would not act alone. (128)
  6. Brady claimed that “he did not know McNally’s name or anything about McNally’s game-day responsibilities” (129). Wells thinks this claim is contradicted by McNally and Jastremski.

Claim (1): Referencing Brady
This is the more salacious aspect of the report and the one most are jumping on. It is also, I think, entirely ignorant of texting norms. It treats texts as sequential and linear conversations. Anyone who regularly texts knows this is not true. Texts are often out of order and can refer to various conversations. I regularly have text sessions with friends and family that can contain 3 to 4 different ‘conversations’ concurrently. In addition, texting is more like casual conversation where people use a lot of hyperbole, exaggeration, sarcasm, etc. It is a little scary to image how the texts my friends and I have sent could be interpreted. Although Wells’ acknowledges that many of the texts where attempts at humor, he doesn’t think this affects the conclusion. But if McNally and Jastremski are referencing Brady in a joking, hyperbolic, or farcical manner, then Wells interpretation utterly fails. Wells doesn’t offer independent reasons or evidence for his view that these should be taken the way he takes him.

But even on Wells’ treatment of the texts, there is nothing in there that implicates Brady or suggests that he knew anything about McNally’s monkeying with the footballs after the officials’ review. The one getting the most attention is Jastremski’s text “Talked to him last night. He actually brought you up and said you must have a lot of stress trying to get them done…” (126). This is a smoking gun? Jastremski denies that the ‘him’ is Brady, but even if we go with Wells view that the ‘him’ is Brady: this does not support a claim that Brady knew that McNally and Jastremski were engaging in anything untoward or against the rules. Wells suggests that the text “attributes to Brady knowledge of McNally’s efforts to get the footballs ‘done’ and the stress involved” (127). Ignoring the difficulties of attributing to Brady knowledge because of something Jastremski refers to in a text, it can easily and plausibly be understood as Brady referring to the legitimate work in preparing the footballs. This is not evidence that Brady was aware that anyone was violating the rules.

As whole, the texts do not provide evidence that Brady had some general awareness of the wrongdoing. Should it be surprising that two guys who work at Gillette and work with Brady’s footballs often reference Brady? Most the texts seem to be referring and reacting to a time when the footballs were over-inflated. The ones referring at all to deflation do not reference Brady or suggest Brady awareness of the wrongdoing.

Claim (2): Increased Communication
I am not clear why this is at all damning or suspicious. So the Patriots and Brady get accused of deflation and Brady has several conversations with the guy who takes care of Brady’s footballs. Isn’t that what one would expect? Wells writes that the increased communication “suggest that Brady was closely monitoring Jastremski” (127). Well, of course, wouldn’t you? Why is this suspicious? If I were Brady, I would have called Jastremski to find out what happened, what was going to happen in the future, making sure preparations were all on the up and up going forward, etc.

Claim (3): Autographs
Why is this suspicious? It would be suspicious if Wells provided evidence that Brady didn’t provide such materials to various staff members. In fact, quite the opposite is implied in several places (83, 88). By all accounts, Brady seems like a generous guy to the staff at Gillette, so that McNally received some items is not in itself suspicious. The texts between McNally and Jastremski might suggest a quid pro quo arrangement; however, it just as probably that this putative arrangement was solely between McNally and Jastremski with no knowledge on Brady’s part that the items were some kind of payment. The report provides no evidence to rule this out.

Claim (4): Not turning over cell phone
This is by far the most unsettling. To many, this looks like a tacit admission of guilt or having something to hide. At the same time, I don’t think that conclusion is fair or just. Brady has a right to privacy and am I sure that his lawyers said no way! [A constitutional protected right by the way] And when one sees the hash Wells makes of the texts he does get, I suspect Brady was right not to turn over this phone and emails. (Add to this the apparent suspicion on the part of the Patriots organization that the NFL was targeting them: would you think it best to turn over your personal effects to an investigation you thought was out to get you?) Wells sees this as being uncooperative; however, he does acknowledge Brady’s extensive cooperation in other areas of the investigation.

Claim (5): Wouldn’t Act Alone
This is a flatly ridiculous claim. There are no grounds to think the McNally and Jastremski wouldn’t act alone unless you are already believed Brady was involved. It seems quite credible and plausible that McNally and Jastremski, wanting to please Brady so badly (especially after how pissed Brady seemed to be over the 16 psi Jets game), went too far without Brady’s direction or knowledge. The fact that these guys come off as schnooks makes it more likely, in my eyes, that they would do something this stupid.

Many also claim that because Brady is very particular and meticulous about the footballs he uses and his preparation process in general that he had to have known about the tampering. I don’t think this follows. It seems reasonable to conclude based on the evidence available that Brady made clear his preferences for the condition of the football and that he knew that Jastremski and others handled making sure they fit his preferences (rubbing the footballs down, expressing his preference for the low end of the psi spectrum, etc..) But, where is the evidence that he knew they were tampering with the footballs after the officials’ inspection? That is what is at issue and for which we have no evidence.

Claim (6): Brady and McNally
A good chunk of the report is directed at showing that McNally and Jastremski were intentionally and knowingly violating the inflation rule and lying to investigators to cover it up. Yet, it is the statements of these two that are then provided as the evidence that contradicts Brady’s claim. This would be convincing if someone else provided testimony that Brady knew McNally’s name and responsibilities. But as it is, we are asked to take as credible statements by those, if we believe Wells, we ought to think are no longer credible.

So, what do we have that contradicts Brady’s claim? McNally tells an NFL Security that “Brady personally told McNally of his preference” for psi (129). First, this is not inconsistent at all with Brady not knowing McNally’s name or that he knew that the guy he told about this preference was McNally. It is reasonable that Brady told someone he knew to handle footballs his preference without knowing or remembering his name. Second, given the portrayal of McNally in the report, it seems plausible that he could be misrepresenting a relationship with Brady. Wells doesn’t even consider this possibility and just takes McNally’s word.

Then we have the Jastremski text above suggesting that Brady referred to McNally suggesting that Brady knew McNally, his name, and his responsibilities. We have the same issues here. First, the text is ambiguous as to whether Brady brought up McNally by name. It is just as plausible that what Brady said to Jastremski was something like: “you guys are working hard to get the footballs right for me, thanks.” Second, Jastremski could be exaggerating his relationship with Brady by leading McNally to think that Jastremski and Brady were tight (akin to a sort of humble brag). There is evidence for this kind of exaggeration in regards to Jastremski’s misrepresentation of the 50,000 yard autographed ball, yet Wells doesn’t consider this possibility.

It is unclear why Wells takes Jastremski and McNally as credible on these claims. Here are two guys who already seem to be lying about other things and have something to gain by playing up a relationship with Brady. What is Brady’s motive in lying about knowing McNally? What could he gain? Knowing McNally or not is irrelevant to the question of Brady’s awareness of wrongdoing.

In any case, this is a flimsy reed on which to rest a claim of general knowledge of the actions of McNally and Jastremski to circumvent the rule. If I were Brady I would be exploring a defamation lawsuit.

I know many will say I am grasping at straws here or that I am reading these in the most positive and charitable light (which in general seems fairer to me anyway). But let me be clear. I am not suggesting my reading or account is the only one, the right one, or that is “more probably than not” to be the right one. What I am suggesting is that Wells doesn’t meet his own stated standard. His preferred account is as probable as the ones I suggest here. But if this is the case then the preponderance of evidence does not support his conclusion—or rather, it does not support his conclusion better than other plausible conclusions. He rejects these others as “not credible” but doesn’t provide independent reasons for this. That is, these other accounts are, he claims, not credible because they don’t fit his account. But that begs the question. He needs first to establish his account before he can use it to reject the others. But he can’t establish it without rejecting these other ones. But that rejection is based on his account. And we come full circle.

Most in the media seem to have made up their minds (often it seems without having read the report) that Brady lied. I’ve looked at the evidence in the Wells report and see no reasonable basis for such a conclusion.


Filed under Cheating, Football, NFL, Patriots

The Sports Ethics Show: Pushing the Line: How far is too far?

New Sports Ethics Show Episode

How far is too far in the pursuit of victory? Great athletes push on the norms, rules, and boundaries of their games. This is part of what allows them to achieve excellence, but it also sometimes leads to crossing the line. Jack Bowen, blogger at the Santa Clara University Institute for Sports Law and Ethics blog, and Shawn Klein discuss several cases at the boundaries of the rules of sport: icing-the-kicker, non-traditional formations in the NFL, and “Deflation-gate.”

Show Links:

Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes: iTunes Subscribe


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Filed under Cheating, games, podcast, rule-violations, sportsmanship

Cheating and Diving

My fellow sport philosophy blogger, Mike Austin, has a good post about Diving in Soccer that is well worth reading.

In general, I agree with Mike’s post. I don’t like diving, flopping, etc., in sport. It is cheap and dishonest. It is not an honorable way to compete and win. As Mike says, it “…conflicts directly with the value of sportsmanship, and undermines the pursuit of an honorable victory”.

Mike, however, also characterizes it as “an especially egregious form of cheating”. This claim gives me pause. It seems more like other (potentially) morally dubious actions in sport such as the intentional/professional foul or acts of gamesmanship. These are not normally considered “cheating” by practitioners (sport philosophers, on the other hand, are more mixed on this).

What gives me pause is that I realized I don’t know what cheating is. That is, I don’t think we have clear ways of distinguishing between what counts and doesn’t count as cheating.

(a)  Cheating is an action in violation of the rules.

This is too broad. One might accidentally or unknowingly violate a rule: the accidental face mask in American football. Notice we can still punish the act even if it is not cheating. Cheating carries with it a sharp opprobrium that doesn’t fit an accident (even if it the accident is punishable under a strict liability framework such as the face mask rule in the NFL).

This definition might also be too narrow. Consider some of the MLB players that are being denied Hall of Fame votes because of their alleged PED use. Some of these players were active during a period when MLB did not have rules banning these substances. They are still considered by many to have cheated although they did not violate any rule of the game. I’m going to bracket this criticism in this post.

(b)  Cheating is an action that is an intentional violation of the rules

Some intentional rule violations are not cheating. In basketball, a player cannot hold or push the player with the ball. This is a personal foul that results in the offensive player getting free throws. It also results in the stoppage of the clock and a change of possession. It is routine at the end of close games for the losing team intentionally to foul in order to stop the clock and get the ball back. In order for this to work, the foul must be called and so it involves no deception. The team that is fouled gets a chance to widen their lead with free throws. So the strategic advantage earned by the foul is not unilateral. While the morality of this kind of foul is controversial, it is not usually considered cheating even by those who a critical of the acceptance of these kinds of violations.

(c)  Cheating is an action that is an intentional violation of the rules in which the violator tries to avoid detection, usually through deception, and to gain a unilateral advantage.

There are many counter examples to this formulation. It is against the rules in the NFL for a defensive player to enter the neutral zone and cause an opposing player to react prior to the snap of the ball. (A Neutral Zone Infraction). A defensive player may do this accidentally by mistiming his blitz. But he might also do this strategically hoping to either get an advantage in his movement towards the ball or to get a False Start called on the offensive lineman who reacts. In such cases, he is hoping to get away with his action and gain a unilateral advantage (either in timing or yardage). Nevertheless, it would be very strange to any participant or spectator of the NFL to call this cheating.

The “dive” in soccer (association football) seems to fall into this last category. One takes the dive in order to get a penalty called on the opposing team. Diving is against the rules (one can get a yellow card for it), so the player is deceptive in making the contact appear worse as well as making his feint more believable. The player hopes to get away with his action and thereby gain an unilateral advantage. (On a side note, Mike says “in the case of diving, a player is not accepting any negative consequence, unless he is poor at it and is carded for simulation.” This is too strong. If no foul is called (either for simulation or for contact), the team of the player that has gone to the ground is still going to be momentarily short-handed because the player has taken himself out of the action.)

Although there is nothing incoherent in saying that the soccer dive is unacceptable and the NFL case is acceptable, there is something odd in saying one is a form of cheating and the other is not. The definition picks out both activities, so one would think the concept being defined here would apply to both. This suggests something more needed for the definition of ‘cheating’ or that we need to, as Aristotle would say, start again.

It is worth bringing back the idea that cheating doesn’t necessarily involve the violation of the rules of the game. Nevertheless, cheating does require that there is some kind of forbidden act, though it is open what the source of prohibition is. Cheating also does involve a certain amount of deception and the motive is to gain an advantage. However, neither of these are sufficient for the wrongness of cheating (all actions in the context of sport are aimed at gaining an advantage and there are many acceptable and unproblematic forms of deception in sport). The wrongness seems to come from a subjective exception-making. That is, one takes for himself the right to take an action (otherwise forbidden) that he and others would not grant to anyone else.

This explains why the deception in cheating is evaluated differently from the deception in a trick play. In cheating, the deception is meant to hide the fact that you are doing something you know is not allowed and do not think others should be doing. The deception of a trick play is just part of the play. It is not meant to hide a forbidden act. Nor does one think that such a play is forbidden for others.

The unilateral advantage gained by cheating is also different from the unilateral advantage gained by some act of gamesmanship or intentional foul. In the latter there is a recognition that the other team can engage in these or similar actions to gain analogous advantages. There is, then, a kind of balance of advantages. In cases of cheating, although one might assume others are cheating, the cheater in large part depends on the fact that most don’t engage in the kind of actions he engages in to gain his advantage. When one dopes, their advantage is reduced if everyone dopes. The doper wants the doping system to catch the other dopers (just not him). In other words, the cheater wants the rules to be strictly enforced except when it comes to his actions. In the case of the intentional foul type cases, the player might hope to get away with his foul, but he doesn’t expect or require different treatment by the rules than any one else.

This brings in the important role of the referees. In the intentional foul type cases, the player submits his action (by doing so on the field of play) to the referee for determination. Even he though he is trying to convince the referee to make the call to the player’s advantage (possibly employing deception t), the referee makes the call. The third party determines whether there was a foul or not. In this sense, the fouler wants the rules applied, but applied in his favor. In cheating, this is different. The cheater does not want the rules to be applied in his case and so doesn’t want this third party involvement. The fouler lives within the rules—albeit in a cynical or strained version of them. The cheater abrogates the rules.

I do not have a good way of formulating all this into a clear definition. Nevertheless, I think we can proceed without it.

Diving is a dishonest act and one that is disrespectful to one’s self and to one’s fellow players. It undermines enjoyment by spectators. For these reasons, it fails to live up to the ideals of sportsmanship and honorable play. The game is better without it and the leagues should work (within reason) to discourage it. Yet it doesn’t fit what I have described here as cheating.  The diver, although hoping to get away with his act, isn’t taking a special exception for himself. His deception is to try to convince the referee to apply the rules in a way that is favorable for him, but he is not looking for a nullification of the rules as they are applied to his actions.

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Filed under Cheating, Football, Fouls, Officiating, rule-violations, soccer