Category Archives: Football

Leicester City Semantics: Upset? Champion?

(With the end of the semester overload, I didn’t get to write this up last week, so here it is this week.)

jamie-vardy3_35303_3551503bLeicester City winning the Premier League is very cool. I think it’s great for soccer/football. It’s great for the EPL. It weakens the claim that money = wins in sports. It is an inspiration to witness the achievement of a team that had to battle up from the lower divisions and then stare down regulation last season. And they were a fun team to watch. Jamie Vardy is a little crazy, but an exciting player to watch play.

And as every commentator from here to Mars has pointed out, the Foxes were 5000 to 1 to win the league at the start of the EPL season. And their championship is being hailed in the media as the greatest upset in sports history. Upset?? Don’t make me go all Inigo Montoya on you all.

It’s an amazing feat. It’s unheralded. It’s a “Cinderella” story even. But “upset”? No.

Leicester were in first place for the last third of the season, and despite a few slips here or there, they’ve pretty much been top of the table since November. They were in the top 5 wire to wire.  By January, the odds of the Foxes winning had come down from 5000 to 1 to 8 to 1 and by February they were one of the favorites, if not the favorite, to win the league.

I am not sure how a team that is one of the favorites to win becomes the greatest upset of all times.

As in so many things, this turns on what we mean by “upset”. I take an upset to refer to a situation when the unexpected team/player wins; when the team or player that is not supposed to win, that is not favored to win, wins.

This doesn’t seem to apply to Leicester City after January. From that point to the end of the season, Leicester was top of the table and one of the favorites. So they were not unexpected, not the underdog.

Sure, back in August Leicester was not expected to win, they were not supposed to win, they were certainly not favored for anything but regulation. That is part of what makes their championship so amazing and historic. But by January, we knew that Leicester was going to at least challenge for the championship. And by April it was nearly (unless you were a Spurs supporter) a foregone conclusion. So I ‘upset’ doesn’t apply.

Speaking of Championships. I’ve also seen some criticisms of crowning Leicester City a champion without a championship match. Granted this usually comes from quarters less familiar with the structure of European soccer/football, but it is an interesting question. Does a champion need a championship match?

I don’t think so. There is nothing incomplete about a league crowning the league winner as its champion. Playoff systems are exciting and thrilling, but they have their own concerns. (Podcast: The Value of Playoffs and Championships) One major one is that a weaker team can win if it gets lucky, gets hot at the right time, or because it gets an easier bracket.

If a league doesn’t have a well-balanced schedule, then there is a good basis for needing a playoff system/championship game to determine the champion. If there is a team that the eventual champion didn’t play, that raises questions about the legitimacy of the champion. But in the Premier League every team plays every other team home and away. The EPL is a really long round robin tourney, so in many ways a championship match would be superfluous. And European soccer fans hungry for a playoff system get that in Champions league, the FA Cup, and other similar tourneys.

Recap: Upset, no. Champions, yes.



Filed under Achievement, Football, playoffs, soccer

Eye-opener at University of Missouri

A lot has been written already and a lot more will be written about what the University of Missouri football team did. For those who have been doing campus visits to Hogwarts this weekend and missed this story, the football team at the University of Missouri threatened not to play if the president of the university didn’t step down. The president resigned on Monday. This was part of a campus protest regarding racism and other issues on campus.

This story has a lot of twists and turns. It is not simply—in some ways it is barely about—the football team. It’s about race, racism, campus politics, free speech, ‘safe zones’, and institutional control and leadership—among other things. Most of this doesn’t have to do with sport, so I’m not going to comment on it here.

The interesting sports angle to this story is the football team and the immense power they demonstrated. In just about two days, the football team pushed the president of a large state university out the door. Wow. Whatever one might think about the complicated underlying issues that gave rise to this protest, this is huge. It is a potential game-changer.

College athletes, well, the elite division 1 football and basketball players, are waking up to the potential power they have. As many commentators and columnists have noted, including Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel on the Dan Patrick Show, the whole NCAA system rests on the players always playing. If they refuse to stop playing, the whole system grinds to a halt. That’s quite a sword to dangle over Mark Emmert’s head.

I doubt, though, we will see athletes walk out this weekend or in the near future in order to get paid, to get better health insurance, or something similar. The Missouri situation is not so much a blueprint as it is an eye-opener. It was a special circumstance we are not likely to see in the unionization of the college-athletes. The Missouri team was linked with other campus groups and importantly had the backing of the coach. This was, at least in part, about race and so had a unifying effect of bringing the campus, the public, and the media together. But, being about race, it had a silencing effect as well: criticism of the football players for engaging in this protest would almost certainly be framed as being racist and so there was very little criticism. That will not be the case when the issue is more about the pecuniary interests of the players. There will be many vocal critics and the coaches likely will not give their support either. At Missouri, the team was apparently standing with and joining with the campus; the focus was on the university and racism. There was a clear and straight-forward demand that could be met or not: the university president resigning. In walk-outs related to pay-for-play, the players will largely stand alone and the athletes will be the focal point. The demand for pay, share of revenue, unionization, etc., is something that will require months of negotiations and the rewriting of countless rules. It’s a lot more complicated of a goal, one that is harder to know if it has been attained. It will require athletes holding out for a lot longer than two days with many losing scholarships and positions. All of this, along with the huge logistical difficulty of organizing players at different campuses, suggest we are not going to see a college-athlete strike anytime soon.

That said, the players see that they have this power. It will be tested again. How and when they wield it, and what it accomplishes, will be intriguing.


Filed under athletes, Football

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

Deflate Gate Media Appearances

Who knew under-inflated footballs would cause such a stir! Over the last week, I’ve had a number of media appearances related to this issue. I’m trying to get a post out soon (this coincided with the first of class so I’ve had to attend to my ‘real’ job). Here’s the list of my ‘deflate-gate’ appearances (I will update as necessary):

Reed, Phillip. “Sports Ethics Expert From Rockford University Discusses ‘Deflate gate'” FOX WQRF 39 & ABC WTVO 17. Air Date: January 30, 2015. Web:

Lothian, Dan. “Sports Ethicist Sees Honest Lesson in Deflategate” January 26, 2015. Web:

ESPN The Classroom, Marist College Center for Sports Communication. 1220 ESPN. January 24, 2015. Web (podcast):

Huffpost Live “The Latest on Deflate Gate” January 23, 2015. Web:

CNN Newsroom with Carol Costello. January 23, 2015. Transcript: Video Archive:

Maese, Rick. “Patriots, Bill Belichick walk, sometimes cross, line between competitiveness and cheating” Washington Post, January 22, 2015. Web:

Spewak, Danny. “Science Claims Deflategate Was No Accident!” WGRZ, Buffalo, NY. January 22, 2015. Web:

Alesia, Mark. “Sports ethics experts analyze Belichick, ‘DeflateGate’” Indianapolis Star, January 22, 20`5. Print (January 23, 2015) A1; A6. Web:

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Filed under Football, media, NFL

Chris Conte and Achilles

In comments to WBBM Newsradio in Chicago, Chicago Bears safety Chris Conte said that “I’d rather have the experience of playing and, who knows, die 10, 15 years earlier than not be able to play in the NFL and live a long life.”

This sparked an interesting discussion on ESPN’s Mike and Mike morning show about the choice of professional and elite athletes to engage in their sport. Many sports, not just football, pose health risks to players. Football, though, is most salient because of its popularity, the physical and violent nature of the game, and the greater attention on concussions. Football players are likely more aware of the dangers they face in playing their game than other athletes and so they are in a better position to make the explicit trade off that Conte is talking about. And Conte is not alone in choosing the glorious short life over the quiet long life. The Mike and Mike show highlighted several football players who seemed to concur with Conte’s view.

What was particularly interesting, though, was that both Greenberg and Golic looked at this choice from the perspective of being in their late 40s and early 50s. Golic, a former professional football player, said something to the effect that when he was in his 20s he thought like Conte, but now as father at 52 he wouldn’t want to give up the longer life. In particular, he wasn’t willing now to forsake the values achievable in his more mature years: such as seeing his children grow up, get married, and have kids of their own. The Mikes took care not to invalidate the choice made by Conte and others, but expressed a warning that they might not think the same way when they got older. The trade-off might be obvious in one direction when you are 22 years old, but it might be just as obvious the other way when you are 50.

The discussion of this trade-off and which choice is better choice is not new.

In Book 9 of the Illiad, Achilles tells us of his fate:

“My mother Thetis tells me that there are two ways in which I may meet my end. If I stay here and fight, I shall not return alive but my name will live for ever: whereas if I go home my name will die, but it will be long ere death shall take me.” (

Achilles obviously travels the path of staying at Troy and fighting. And we know that he dies after the close of the Illiad. And, of course, his name has not died. He is one of history’s greatest warriors and heroes.

In the Odyssey, Homer shows us Odysseus meeting up with Achilles in the underworld. Odysseus asks Achilles, essentially, if death is so bad. Achilles was great in life, remembered by all, and he holds an honored place even in the world of the dead, so surely death can’t be that bad for him. Achilles response is fascinating.

“Nay, seek not to speak soothingly to me of death, glorious Odysseus. I should choose, so I might live on earth, to serve as the hireling of another, of some portionless man whose livelihood was but small, rather than to be lord over all the dead that have perished.” (

Another translation that hammers this point home:

“I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man’s house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead.” (

So Achilles, with the perspective of hindsight, seems like he would have chosen a different fate. If he knew back on the fields of Troy what death was truly like, maybe he would not have entered the fight. Maybe he would have gone home to Phthia and lived out a quiet life of obscurity.

Homer seems to be giving us the same warning that Greenberg and Golic are. Be careful how you make this choice. Try to imagine what it will look like on other end of the choice.

This is central to how we live; and so central to ethics. We all make this trade-off in some way, every day. We choose paths in life balancing the long and short term interests, benefits, costs, and harms. We forgo tasty treats out of a concern for our longer term health. Or one chooses to continue to smoke cigarettes because they derive an irreplaceable joy from them, despite knowing the long-term health risks. A young woman chooses to forgo time and money in the here and now to invest years (decades even) of her life in medical education and residency so that she can be a great surgeon. We choose to drive cars knowing the risks because of the benefits we can get. Examples are everywhere: every time we choose something for the short-term benefits at the sake of longer-term interests, we choose like Achilles and Conte. This trade-off might be worth it. Short-term goods and benefits are after all goods; we have to live in the now and there may be many good reasons to risk tomorrow for the now (see my post on violence and football). But someday far-off tomorrow will be now and that has to be considered as well.

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Filed under ESPN, Football, violence

Go Goodell, Go! Soon.

The controversy swirling around Roger Goodell’s suspension of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson is precisely why the NFL Commissioner needs to resign or be fired. I happen to think he got this one basically right, but that is not the real issue here. Goodell has no credibility with the players, with media, or with fans. It doesn’t matter what the decision ended being, the conversation would be the same. People would still be shouting: “He is overreacting because of the bungling of the Ray Rice case.” “He is being too harsh.” “He is being too lenient.” “This is more about Goodell than the particular case or the good of the NFL.”

I am not claiming that a new commissioner wouldn’t face criticism or get every decision correct. But the focus would be more on the merits of the case. With Goodell in charge, it is about Goodell and his tenure. No action he takes can be understood except through the prism of a year of disastrous decisions. A new commissioner who comes with some gravitas would not have that baggage – at least not directly. At some point, enough owners will realize this and Goodell will be gone.

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Sports Ethics Show: The Value of Playoffs and Championships

New Sports Ethics Show Episode
Baseball playoffs are in full swing with both American and National League Championship Series opening this weekend. For baseball fans, this is one of the most exciting parts of the baseball season. But are we getting something wrong? Is there something wrong with having playoffs decide champions? Are there better ways of determining champions and organizing sport competitions? Dr. Aaron Harper of West Liberty University discusses these questions and related issues with Shawn E. Klein.

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Filed under baseball, Football, NFL, playoffs, podcast, soccer

The Sports Ethicist Show: Boston Breakdown with Joe

A new episode of The Sports Ethicist Show is available!

 Joe Danker and Shawn Klein discuss things Boston sports in this episode of The Sports Ethicist. What defines a successful season? How important is it for the Bruins to get to and win the Stanley Cup this year? Are the Red Sox in a grace period after winning the World Series? Is it wrong for the Celtics to be tanking their season?

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Filed under baseball, basketball, Boston, Football, Hockey, podcast, RadioShow, soccer

NLRB, College Athletes, and Unions

I’ve hesitated posting anything about the recent NLRB decision regarding the Northwestern football players push to form a union for two reasons.

First, I am not a lawyer and I don’t know much about labor law. So I can’t intelligently comment on the decision itself. I am not in a position to evaluate the merits of the case or the applicability of the relevant law and regulations.

Second, the potential impact of this decision is monumental. It could change everything in college sports (or nothing, but more likely something in between). It seems impossible to make a comment without it spidering out to dozens of other relevant issues. How will this affect compensation and tax laws? What about Title IX and other sports? What will the impact be on the NCAA and its governance/oversight roles? More generally, if the structure of collegiate athletics changes radically, how will this affect higher education overall?

Each one of these is a complex issue in itself. This should tell you that the talking heads commenting on all this probably don’t know what they are talking about it. And after reading a lot of different viewpoints on this since the decision was announced, the one thing I can gleam is that no one knows how this is going to play out or what it really means. The only honest answer to the question “What does this decision mean for college sports?” is “Beats the hell out of me!”

Nevertheless, I wanted to make at least a few general comments.

I think it is an important aspect of the liberty of association and the liberty of contract that individuals are free to work together as a voluntary unit to achieve agreed upon ends. This is what a corporation does. This is what a union does. It’s what a university does. In that way, I don’t think there are compelling reasons for the state to prevent players (or anyone) from forming a union. (At the same time, I don’t think the state should force anyone else to have to deal with that union either—but that is story for another time). In this general sense (and without commenting on their reasoning), I think the NLRB decision was correct.

Additionally, I think the NCAA and the current collegiate athletic system is unfair, hypocritical, and just plain a mess. This decision may be a catalyst for some real change.

And this leads to the worry that I think many have. It may open the door for change, but what kind of change? Change is not always a good thing. As bad as the NCAA is, there is nothing so bad that can’t be made be worse.

Still, I am more sanguine about the reform possibilities than this suggests. At the very least it should be interesting to watch unfold.

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Filed under Football, NCAA

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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