Sep 19, 2010

Cheating and Deception in Sports

This is like picking low-hanging fruit, of course, but I can't help commenting on this piece by Bruce Weber in the Saturday NYT concerning cheating in sports. Apparently Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter faked getting hit by a pitch. Though the ball only impacted the bottom of his bat, he dramatically acted as if the ball hit his hand. Bruce Weber wants to argue that it's puritanical to find something objectionable, morally or otherwise, about Jeter's histrionics; unfortunately he strikes out when it comes to giving good reasons for his view.

The proposal is that we can distinguish licit deception from cheating proper in terms of spontaneity. If a player is responding spontaneously to the situation of the game, like Jeter supposedly was, that's fine; if the action is more deliberate and planned, that's more likely to be cheating. But why should degree of spontaneity have anything to do with whether pretending to get hit by a pitch, or taking a fall in soccer, is to be considered cheating? Typically, how premeditated an action is will matter only for the blameworthiness of an actor, not for the rightness of the action; here, it's supposed to matter for rightness, and that's just perplexing.

Weber also claims that deception is inherent to competition. But that's obviously false. How could I deceive my opponent in tic-tac-toe, for example? And even when a game does involve some deception- like chess, arguably- there's a difference between deception that's built into the structure of the game, and deception that is outside that structure. (For example, it would be objectionable to promise not to look at your opponent's Scrabble board while he grabs a sandwich, but then sneak a peak. It's simply not part of the game of Scrabble to look at your opponent's board!)

I think it's difficult to spell out what a good view of this question is, but I'd suggest a few basic points to start with.

1. We respect honest players more than those who capitalize on opportunities to gain through dishonesty. Moreover, we ought to do so.
Weber disagrees, saying that we don't expect players to argue calls that it's not in their interest to reverse, even if they know they were wrongly made. I guess he doesn't expect much of athletes morally; that's a shame.

2. What counts as cheating is going to depend on specific facts about the sport. (Weber agrees with this.) In American football, for example, a quarterback's hard count is designed to trick the defense into rushing before the snap, and receiving an offsides penalty. I would say this is fine, perhaps partly because this practice is common knowledge, so it's not as deeply deceptive as feigning injury. What's common knowledge among participants in an activity will vary depending on what the activity is; it's different in baseball than soccer, and might be different across token games of the same sport.
(Common knowledge has a technical meaning in philosophy. It's common knowledge that something is the case if everyone knows it, and everyone knows that everyone knows it, and so on.)

3. This is a bit more adventurous: what it means to be a good x while y-ing is sensitive to what it means to be a good x. So, what it means to be a good person while playing some particular sport is sensitive to what it means to be a good person. I don't know if we can say much in general about the relation between being a good person and being a good athlete, because of point (2). But Weber's article tends to deny any kind of relationship here, which I think is dangerous. The demands of morality and propriety don't vanish when we step on the field.

4. This gets pretty messy, since it involves a doing/allowing distinction, but here goes: There's a difference between actively deceiving an umpire (like Jeter seems to have done), and merely failing to correct the mistakes of an umpire. Weber disagrees with this, but doesn't give any reason for doing so.

That's all I want to say for now. My hunch is that there are interesting parallels between the right account of cheating in sports and the right account of lying in conversation.


  1. Without having read either of these, it seems to me that what is bothersome about the Jeter example can be explained in a more particular fashion. The rule is in place to penalize one side for doing things that will likely cause bodily harm to the other. The penalty assessed is supposed to provide a disincentive to doing things that will hurt your opponent. Jeter in this case takes advantage of a rule that only exists to protect his physical well-being.

    There's also a manliness component: athletes are supposed to underplay, not overplay, instances of physical pain.

  2. Ian, I'm not sure it's obviously problematic that the rule taken advantage of was for Jeter's own protection.

    I agree with your second point, though I might not put it in terms of manliness.

    1. As for taking advantage of a rule meant to protect you, i) If the bad result of something equals the badness of this thing itself, then Ian is right in thinking that since violating the rule will probably weaken the power of the rule, which is supposedly unwanted by Jeter, then what Jeter did is bad/wrong because it causes a bad result; ii) I'm not a big fan of Consequentialism so I would hesitate before saying that a bad result makes the thing itself bad. However, even without this Consequentialist view, we can still criticize Jeter's behaviour based on its result. That is, we can criticize by saying that it's unwise: Jeter has been seeking a short-term "small" good at the expense of a long-term "big" bad result-weakening the rule that's for his physical well-being, which is unwise in most people's opinions (even though they may make the same choice for short-term good!) Apart from unwisedom, if you go ask Jeter which he will choose, a current advantage or a ever-lasting physical protection, he has a good chance to choose the latter. Nevertheless, he chose the former by his action spontaneously, which shows that he wasn't even listening to his own reason at that time and that he was unwise even by his own standard.

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