Category Archives: rule-violations

Sign-Stealing and Stupid Rules

The recent MLB sign-stealing cases raise some important questions and I’ve been getting a lot of questions about it. Here are some of my thoughts.

I am not all that interested, from a philosophical perspective, in whether the Astros or Alex Cora/Red Sox are facing appropriate consequences. (As a Red Sox fan, I have some worries for sure.) The investigation has concluded that there were violations of the rules regarding sign-stealing and the league has doled out what seems to me to be serious penalties. MLB wants to signal that it won’t tolerate such activities in the future and I think these penalties do that. Break rules, get punished. Nothing philosophical interesting with that.

What is far more interesting, philosophically, are the questions this raises about the rules. Why have rules against sign-stealing via technology? And this pushes us to consider the nature of rules in general and how they are meant to govern the activity. It also raises important questions about what kinds of rules we should have and what the appropriate scope of the rules should be.

In the case of sign-stealing, it is not clear to me what the rule is trying to prevent. When I think about rules against pass interference in football or the balk rule in baseball, I can understand the point of the rule. These may be difficult rules to apply at times, but the importance of prohibiting the activities these rules prohibit is clear enough. But sign-stealing is allowed in baseball—it’s always been an aspect of the game. The problem here is that teams employed cameras and other technologies to help them steal the signs and it’s this use of technology that is against the rules.

But why? Sure the tech makes it easier and faster to identify the signs (or at least seems to). But does it change the game? Does it undermine the skills of baseball? The pitcher still has to make the pitch. The batter still has to hit the ball. The latter might be easier if you know the pitch that is coming (though even knowing it is curveball doesn’t tell you the actual speed and location), and that seems to be the concern. (Though it is not clear any advantage was gained ).

But this concern strikes me as somewhat myopic. If sign-stealing, even with cameras and replays or whatnot is allowed, the pitching side is going to devise ways to hide their signs better and also to fool those trying to steal them. If you know someone is watching (and you are on TV, millions are watching), you’ll figure out a better way to hide it or misdirect the watchers trying to decode. So why should we assume that the sign-stealing with cameras is going to make it any easier to guess the pitch. (This is an empirical question—but when we look at the history of sport (and almost any institution) it is evident that each new development is met with a counter-development).

One legitimate concern is that technology could get out of hand. Do we want teams bugging dugouts, hacking into communication devices, and other kinds of technological surveillance? Probably not. But a few things to say in response to this. First, sign stealing has always been a part of baseball—bugging the dugouts has, to be my knowledge, not been. Second, we can draw a principled line between surveilling those things that are out in the open (like pitch signs) and things that are not (like a dugout conversation). This might be parallel to the expectation of privacy doctrine in law. The signs for the pitch are on national TV, so there is little reason to expect privacy. The conversation or communication between the dugout and the bullpen are not broadcast, and so there seems to be an expectation of privacy.

Nevertheless, it is against the rules and the teams that knowingly and intentionally engaged in these activities were wrong to do so and it looks like most of those involved are facing serious consequences for this. But punishments and punitive measures only go so far. It would be better if we took a step back to think about what the rules are trying to do, whether they accomplish that, and whether those goals are good ones, and whether the rules are good rules.

And I don’t think sign-stealing with technology passes that consideration. To be even more blunt: I think it is a stupid rule.

I think it fails to be a good rule in at least three ways. Good rules should be (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • Clear and not ambiguous
  • Reasonably enforceable
  • Reasonably justified or make sense for the game.

How are these cases unclear or ambiguous? Don’t use cameras or other technology to steal signs. That seems clear enough. But the problem is that the activity being made impermissible is something that is allowed in some situations but not others. You can steal signs if you are a base runner on second. But you can’t do it if you are in the bullpen. You can make use of video to study pitching signs during the preparation for the game, but not during the game. Also what counts as technology? In the past teams, like the 1951 World Series winning NY Giants, apparently used binoculars. I just don’t see a clear, non-arbitrary set of principles to justify why doing it with cameras/tech is prohibited while without such tech it is allowed and this makes it ambiguous.

Enforceability: The fundamental problem with these cases is that we are trying to prohibit the team from looking at things that everyone can already see. To be effective, these rules would necessitate massive and expensive policing of teams, crowds, and broadcasts to truly combat it. And it would still likely fail to be effective.

Justification: As I wrote above, it’s just not clear why we should prohibit these activities. The advantages seem minimal – especially if the surveillance is transparent (that is, allowed and understood to be going on). Allowing the teams to look at what everyone can see anyway and what they can look at outside of the particular competition doesn’t seem likely to upend the nature of the game.

None of this is meant to justify or excuse the activities of those involved. I would like to hope, however, that these cases push us to think more about the nature of the rules of our games. Having good rules to govern our activities will make those activities better.





Filed under baseball, Cheating, rule-violations

Examined Sport: The Ethos of Games

In this episode of Examined Sport, I discuss Fred D’Agostino’s “The Ethos of Games.” In this 1981 paper, D’Agostino critiques Formalist view of games and defends an alternative theory we call conventionalism.

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Jackie Robinson West Little League Eligibility Violations

I was quoted in a Chicago Tribune article on the Jackie Robinson West Little League eligibility violations. These violations led Little League International to strip the team of its 2014 US Championship. JRW was the hit of the summer with their great run in the Little League World Series. The team’s wins are being vacated for having “knowingly violated Little League International Rules and Regulations by placing players on their team who did not qualify to play because they lived outside the team’s boundaries.” (Little League International)

“Sports, boundaries and eligibility: a persistent issue” by Philip Hersh

Update: an earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Mo’ne Davis played for Jackie Robinson West.


Filed under baseball, rule-violations, Youth Sports

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.”

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

The Sports Ethics Show: The Ethics of Fouls

New Sports Ethics Show Podcast

In the 2010 World Cup, Luis Suárez committed an infamous handball in the Uruguay and Ghana match that prevented Ghana from winning the match. This incident raised many questions about the propriety of strategic fouls. Erin Flynn of Ohio Wesleyan University joins Shawn Klein on the podcast to discuss whether the commission of intentional fouls for strategic gain is blameworthy. In the course of the conversation, they touch on the value of winning and its relationship to skillful play.

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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

Welcome Sports Illustrated readers!

This blog was mentioned in Phil Taylor‘s “Point After” column in the October 14, 2014 edition. Taylor’s column focused on the apparent growing tolerance for cheating. He quoted from my post “The Biogenesis Scandal and PEDs“.

When and if Sports Illustrated puts the column online, I will link to it. 

Update 10/23/2013: The column is now online: Rules Are Meant To Be … Rules

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Ethics of Hockey Fights

On the most recent Sports Ethicist Show, I spoke with my friend Joe, a die-hard hockey fan, about whether fighting in hockey is ethically justified. In this post, I will summarize and revisit some of the main points of the discussion.

Hockey is known for frequent in-game fights: so much so that there is a joke about going to a boxing match but a hockey game broke out. Fights, of course, happen in other sports: baseball, football, etc., but only in hockey is it seemingly accepted and even used strategically in the game. Other sports leagues (included European hockey leagues) eject, fine, and suspend players for fighting. In the NHL, a fight typically only results in a five minute penalty. NHL rules even stipulate the conditions around fighting.

Fighting in the NHL is controversial. Many traditional hockey fans and players see fighting as an inherent and important part of the sport. Other fans and critics regard fighting as unnecessary and barbaric.

My position is that fighting in hockey is for the most part unnecessary and wrong. It is a lack of sportsmanship and self-control, and overall does more harm to the sport than any purported benefits. Nevertheless, I do think there is a case to be made for the NHL status quo.

Those who defend hockey fighting offer several reasons. I think the following list is representative of these reasons.

  1. Intimidation: Fighting as a strategy gives the team a psychological edge over opponents.
  2. Momentum-Changer: Fighting can swing momentum in a team’s favor.
  3. Entertainment: Fans want to the see fighting.
  4. Offensive/Defensive Balance: Fighting helps to maintain the appropriate balance between offensive and defensive strategies. Prohibiting fighting would favor more finesse offense.
  5. Retaliation/ Self-Policing: Fighting is justified in retaliation for cheap shots and agitation.
  6. Deterrence Effect: By allowing fighting, the overall level of violence, instigation, or cheap play is reduced.
  7. Penalty Draw: Fighting or agitation by threatening fighting can be used strategically to induce the opposing team to commit a penalty.
  8. Outgrowth of Physical/Aggressive Play: Fighting is an occasional, though expected, consequence of the physical play that is necessary to hockey.

In what follows, I analyze the relative strengths and weaknesses of these arguments. For the most part, except for #8, these don’t measure up to justifying hockey fighting.

The first three arguments (Intimidation, Momentum, Entertainment) beg the question by assuming the justifiability of fighting in the first place. For an activity to be acceptable as a legitimate strategy for intimidation or momentum, it has to be a one that is already a justifiable strategy. For example, taking a player out by beating him over the head with a baseball might intimidate the opposition, but it is clearly not justified. But this justification is the very thing in question here. Moreover, there are plenty of alternative and legal strategies to gain a psychological edge or change the momentum of a game.

Similarly, the possible entertainment value of fighting is not sufficient to justify fighting. We still would need to show that it is something appropriate for entertainment. Where fighting as such regarded as benign or otherwise acceptable, then the fact that folks find it entertaining would be sufficient; but, since fighting is not something normally regarded as acceptable behavior(in regular life or most sports), it stands in need of justification beyond the spectacle.

I do not think the Offense/Defense balance argument justifies fighting. One, I am not sure fighting has a significant role in maintaining the balance. Though I have little direct experience of them, Olympic and European hockey leagues don’t seem too far out of balance in this regard and they do not allow fighting. Two, if there is an imbalance, the league ought to look to its rules to help restore the balance in a way that doesn’t require the violence of fighting. This argument, like the earlier ones, also seems to beg the question. Fighting could be used to maintain the balance, but only if we already accept that it is an acceptable activity. Its acceptability is, however, the thing in question.

The retaliation argument is a common one. The claim is that the in order to prevent agitation, cheap shots, and outright attacks on smaller or star players, the bigger, tougher players have to engage in the occasional fight. My friend Craig Carley suggests that the medieval concept of a fighting champion might be relevant here. The goalie or skilled, non-fighting player needs the fighters (“goons”) as a champion to protect them from and retaliate for violence done against them.

Nicholas Dixon, in “A Critique of Violent Retaliation in Sport,” argues against this view. He argues that by analogy to criminal law, we don’t allow self-defense to extend beyond the moment of danger. While one can justifiably defend themselves (or someone else) from an attack, one cannot hunt down and retaliate against the assailant later. That is the job for the justice system. By analogy, the referees and league officials are the ones that ought to police cheap shots and illegal violence in the game. Players can certainly defend themselves and teammates, but once the initial aggression is thwarted, it ought to be up to the officials to dispense justice.

I am sympathetic to this view. It is one thing for a fight to break out in the course of self/team defense. It is quite another thing for the coach to send out a player later in the game, or even a subsequent game, to fight someone on the opposing team in retaliation for some earlier improper action. This latter induces more violence rather than curbing it. The former might reduce violence by countering it at the point of attack and possibly deterring it in the first place. But to strike back later, after the fact, likely merely initiates a new round of violence.

Another objection to the retaliation argument is that European hockey leagues as well as the Olympics explicitly prohibit fighting and punish it more severely. It is not clear that this diminishes the game, makes it any less exciting, or puts the smaller, star players in to more vulnerable positions. This undermines the claim that hockey wouldn’t be as good or safe without the fighting.

At the same time, the policy of self-policing in the NHL is an attractive aspect of the game. Unlike in football or basketball, I rarely think about the referees. In almost every NFL or NBA game, the officials seem to make bad calls that have significant effects on the game. In my experience, this is much rarer in the NHL. In part, this is due to allowing the players to police certain aspects of the game themselves. If the referee role was increased to root out fighting, we would see the referees having more of an effect on the game—and one fans and players won’t like.

The deterrence effect argument is another one that has some pull on me. It makes some intuitive sense that players would be less likely to instigate or agitate if they knew a “goon” was going to be coming after them. So it might be true that by the NHL being open to some minor fighting, it reduces the overall level of violence in the game. This is true even if fighting is rare. It can be just the goon-threat that prevents the initial instigation from occurring or getting out of hand.

A direct attempt to reduce fighting in the game might, then, have the unintended consequence of increasing violence and potential injuries. As we have seen in baseball, the introduction of the bench warning process for hit batsman has actually increased the number of hit batsman, not reduced it as intended. (See this article:

The weaknesses of this argument are similar to the retaliation argument. The policing of inappropriate violence in the game is best left to the officials and it is not at all clear that the empirical claim that this reduces violence is true. One way to test this is to look at the leagues that do not allow fighting: do we see more or less violence and agitation? (And we don’t seem to see more.)

The use of fighting or, rather agitation by threatening fighting, can be used strategically to induce the opposing to team to commit a penalty. To the extent that the instigating player stays within the rules and draws a penalty by getting the other play to lose his composure, this doesn’t seem objectionable. If one is merely counting on not getting caught throwing the first punch, this strikes me as unsportsmanlike. It is one thing to harass, within the rules, the opposition; it is another thing to violate the rules while hoping you don’t get caught.

This argument, then, doesn’t support the justifiability of fighting. It supports the attempt to get the opposition to initiate a fight so that one’s team gets a power play. This presupposes that fighting deserves a penalty.

The last argument is the one I think is strongest for continuing the NHL status quo. This is the claim that fighting is an occasional, though expected, consequence of the physical play that is necessary to hockey. The players on the ice are constantly in a physical battle for establishing their position and claiming their space. This involves the jostling of bodies and hitting of opposition players. This is essential to the play of hockey. But it is also likely to sometimes erupt into fights just as an outgrowth of physical, aggressive play. Since this play is necessary to the game, the expected outcome of the occasional fight is also a part of the game. This fits into Robert Simon’s category of mixed fouls:

“Mixed strategic fouls occur when athletes play more aggressively at key points in the contest, knowingly taking on the increased risk of fouling because the price of fouling might be strategically worth paying.” (The Ethics of Strategic Fouling: A Reply to Fraleigh.)

This doesn’t celebrate the fighting as such (or condone strategic fighting), but it does recognize that the occasion fight is an expected outcome of the kind of play that is essential to the game, both in terms of playing it well and fan enjoyment. Attempts to reduce fighting in the game significantly would likely have the unintended consequence of reducing the physical, aggressive play of hockey and thereby, undermine a significant aspect of the game.

From this, I conclude that the strategic and intentional use of fighting in hockey is not justified. Moreover, that while fighting should not be encouraged or celebrated, the NHL should be wary of moving too strongly or too quickly to reduce or to eradicate fighting from its game.


Filed under Hockey, rule-violations, violence

The Biogenesis Scandal and PEDs

On Tuesday, ESPN’s Outside the Lines reported that Major League Baseball is preparing to suspend nearly two dozen players connected to Tony Bosch’s Biogenesis clinic. Bosch is suspected of supplying these players with various prohibited performance-enhancing substances. There are major stars, like Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, and Nelson Cruz, on the list of players facing possible suspensions. (I remain hopeful that no Red Sox players show up on this list. I also admit to a healthy scoop of schadenfreude with A-Rod.)

Whenever a big doping scandal erupts, there are two issues that need to be distinguished.

The first issue is the theoretical debate about the justification for the prohibition of PEDs. The academic literature is replete with discussions about the ultimate justifiability of these bans, and if so, on what grounds. Personally, I am skeptical of most of the arguments supporting PED bans: mostly on the grounds that they often fail to be consistent or exhaustive. Though as a philosopher, this is the issue I am most interested in, I am not so concerned with these questions here.

The second issue is that given that there are bans, how ought we to evaluate those who get caught? In one respect, this seems easy. We ought to condemn players who knowingly violate the rules of their sport. That said, I do think there are important questions about the fairness and reliability of the current system of testing. Is it effectively administrated? If not, this could mean that the system favors some athletes, allowing them to get away with PED use while others cannot. Is it reliable in screening out false positives? It can be ruinous to a player’s reputation to be falsely accused of PED use: once tainted, it is nearly impossible to get out of that shadow. Due process is important: for a player’s reputation, legacy, and earnings. But it is also essential for fans to know that the system is fair and that the game is being played on an even field.

But even with these questions about fairness and process, players know the rules. They know what substances are prohibited. Players that seek an edge beyond what is allowed by the rules are in the wrong.

There might not be well-grounded reasons to ban many of these substances, but there also aren’t good reasons to prevent leagues—participation in which is voluntary—from implementing such bans (any more than preventing them from banning aluminum bats). So while I may not think that many of these banned substances ought to be banned, they are banned and these players have, through the CBA, agreed to these rules. For them to violate these rules is a violation of their integrity and honesty. For this, we ought to condemn them.


Filed under baseball, PEDs, rule-violations

Rule Violations and Playing As If

As one might imagine there is a decent-sized literature in the philosophy of sport on cheating, rule-violations, and tactical fouls. (Two good papers reviewing the positions: Fraleigh, Water. “Intentional Rule Violations—One More Time” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 2003, XXX, 166-176; and Simon, Robert. “The Ethics of Strategic Fouling: A Reply to Fraliegh” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 2005, XXXII, 87-95)

Roughly the distinctions between these three categories are the following:

  • Rule-violations: The general category of actions where one violates in some manner the accepted rules of the game. These can be accidental (one is pushed out of bounds by an opposing team member) or intentional (one holds a wide receiver to prevent a catch resulting in touchdown).
  • Cheating: an intentional rule violation done for an advantage in a contest that typically involves deception and attempts at avoidance of the penalty for the violation. For example, the use of a prohibited performance-enhancing substance. This is done in secrecy with the goal of keeping the use secret.
  • Tactical foul (also strategic, good, or professional fouls): an intentional rule violation done for an advantage in a contest (or to prevent/mitigate a disadvantage) that is typically done in the open with the goal of the foul being called or acceptance of penalty as price worth paying to prevent a worse outcome. The paradigmatic example is the time-stopping foul near the end of a basketball game. This is done quickly and obviously in order to stop the clock with the hope of closing the point gap.

I am interested in identifying a class of actions that while they might in some ways be rule violations do not seem to fit into the categories of the literature on intentional rule violations.

Here is an example of the kind of action about which I am thinking. During the Texans-Lions NFL matchup on Thanksgiving 2012, Texans’ running back, Justin Forsett, is down by contact. However, there is no whistle by the officials and Forsett proceeds to run 81 yards for a Texans’ touchdown. To a layman’s eye, it looked obvious and clear that Forsett was down and that the play should have been over. (Due to a quirk of the NFL instant replay rules, this play was not reviewable.)

In this case, it seems that Forsett knew he was down and thus knew the play, by rule, was over and that he did not actually score a touchdown. While this is not a rule violation of the sort involved in the commission of a foul or penalty, it is (or at least appears to be) a case where the rules that govern what count as a runner being down or scoring a touchdown are ignored. Forsett, and the Texans as a team, appeared willing to accept a touchdown that by the rules really wasn’t a touchdown.

Similar cases that fit into this category are where a player clearly steps out of bounds but continues to play as if he did not or where a baseball player “traps” the ball and proceeds as if it is a catch. A soccer player who knows she touched the ball with her hand but plays as if she did not. These are all cases where the player appears to have knowledge that he or she has done some action X (that would result in some negative result for him or his side) but continues as if he or she had not (resulting in some advantage for his or her side).

I call these “Playing As If” (I’m not crazy about this name) since one is playing as if they have done one thing while they have in fact done something else. I think these cases are very common in most sports at all levels. Evaluating them, however, is not an easy or clear matter.

It seems, at first glance, that the honorable thing to do in all these cases is to acknowledge the action done. So Forsett should not have run for a touchdown. The baseball play that traps the ball ought not to field the ball as an out. The player who runs out of bounds ought not to continue the play. If this is true, then athletes playing as if, like Forsett, ought to be criticized.

There are two related reasons, however, that moderates against such a judgment.

First, all these cases involve officiating error(s). The officials are charged with ending the play after a player runs out of bounds or is down in football. They have failed to make the correct call and the players continue to play based on the officiating crew’s application of the rules to the game. Many athletes that I have spoken with about such cases put the onus on the officials to make the call. Their responsibility as players is to play, not to officiate. Many have gone further, claiming it would be wrong on the player’s part to engage in self-officiating. In Forsett’s case, his job is to run with the football until the officials blow the whistle signifying the end of the play. It is not his responsibility to determine if he was down or not and he would be wrongly encroaching on the officials’ job were he to do so.

Second, there is an epistemic issue here. In describing these cases, I have been presuming that the player knows that he is down, out of bounds, trapping the ball, etc. The player, though, is not likely to be in a position to know this (or to know with enough certainty). This is part of the reason we have officials. Officials are there to offer an unbiased application of the rules, but also to be responsible for paying attention to these kinds of situations. The player is more likely to be focused on other game situations.

Returning to Forsett’s case, it is not fair to assume that Forsett knows he is down. In conversations with several football players, they shared that in similar situations they couldn’t tell whether they made contact with the ground or another player. If the latter is the case, they are not down and so ought to keep going with the play. Maybe the athlete suspects he is out or down, but to make the further step of making such a call against himself and his team, he needs, I think, more certainty than is typically available to him.

While I think there are cases where a player knows full-well that he is down or out of bounds, etc., in most cases of this sort the athlete deserves the benefit of the doubt. This combined with the well-defined role of the officials as the keeper and adjudicator of the rules mitigates against a straightforward negative moral judgment against athletes in these cases.


Filed under Football, Officiating, rule-violations