SEATTLE – It was Sophocles, the Greek tragedian, who said, “I would prefer even to fail with honor than win by cheating.”
This was uttered about 420 B.C., when internet service was so poor that it took months to hear about scandals. It was so long ago, Tom Brady was still early in his career and hadn’t even discovered the benefits of avocados.
The S-Man would not have liked what is happening in the world of sports nowadays. This week has been particularly jarring when it comes to the eternal, and probably unshakable, quest to get an edge by any means possible.
On Monday, the World Anti-Doping Agency barred Russia from international competition for four years – including the upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo – for a cheating scandal that goes back years and involves a staggering conspiracy to cover up and manipulate test results involving its athletes.
Also on Monday and into Tuesday, the latest allegations involving the New England Patriots exploded. Turns out their videographer was caught taping the sideline of the Cincinnati Bengals – who just happen to be the Patriots’ next opponent – during their game against Cleveland on Sunday.
The Patriots claim it’s just an innocent mistake, that they were filming a segment on their advance scout for a series on behind-the-scenes team employees. Of course, while investigating the Patriots’ infamous 2007 “Spygate” incident, ESPN’s Seth Wickersham and Don Van Natta Jr. reported that New England staff members were told that if they were caught, one of the excuses they were instructed to give was that they were shooting content for a team show.
The NFL is investigating, and the Patriots deserve a fair shake. My first reaction, however, is that they’ve kind of lost the benefit of the doubt. My second reaction is that no one needs to cheat to beat the one-win Bengals, the worst team in the NFL. But already there’s a report from the Athletic in Cincinnati that, according to a source who has seen the video, it shows about 8 minutes of footage focusing on recording the Bengals’ sideline.
The story goes on to say it’s a direct view of the sideline as players run on and off the field and coaches give signals for plays. That’s much the same as the Patriots were found guilty of in Spygate, when coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 and the Patriots lost a first-round pick in the 2008 draft. The Patriots were also docked a first-round draft pick, fined $1 million and Brady suspended four games for their role in the 2015 “Deflategate” incident alleging the quarterback had ordered footballs used in the AFC title game to be deflated.
Meanwhile, MLB’s winter meetings are in full force, and amid the usual free-agent frenzy, the story that’s dominating the hallway buzz is the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal.
You might recall that last month, the Athletic published a blockbuster story detailing the elaborate process the Astros used in 2017 to relay signs to their batters at home. Four inside sources, including former Houston pitcher Mike Fiers, laid out how the Astros would position a camera in center field to pick up catchers’ signs. The feed would be watched near the dugout by team personnel, who would relay the upcoming pitch by banging on a garbage can.
MLB has launched a major investigation that was expanded to include the 2018 and ’19 seasons as well. In light of the fact that Houston won the World Series in 2017 and the American League pennant in 2019, the ramifications could be massive, depending on what the league finds. Three current managers have been interviewed – A.J. Hinch of the Astros as well as two of his former coaches who were subsequently hired by other teams: Alex Cora of the Red Sox (who won the 2018 World Series) and Carlos Beltran, newly hired to manage the Mets.
Obviously, cheating in sports has been around for time immemorial. As long as there are rules, people will try to skirt them. The adage, “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin,’ ” is pretty much ingrained in the world of sports. And as the financial gains continue to grow for those at the top of the profession, the motivation for dishonesty grows with it.
All these incidents have historical antecedents. The 1951 New York Giants, who rallied to catch the Brooklyn Dodgers and win the pennant on Bobby Thomson’s fabled “Shot Heard ‘Round The World,” had an elaborate sign-stealing system that was finally revealed in an article in the Wall Street Journal in 2001. Beginning in July 1951, the Giants used a telescope behind center field to steal catchers’ finger signals and then relayed them to the dugout via a buzzer wire.
George Allen, the legendary NFL coach, was convinced that teams, particularly the Cowboys when he was Washington’s head man, were spying on him. There was rampant suspicion in the NFL that Raiders owner Al Davis was up to nefarious tricks. One famous story involved Chargers coach Harland Svare shaking his fist at a light fixture in their locker room and shouting, “Damn you, Al Davis! I know you’re up there.”
As for the performance enhancement employed by the Russians, no need to revisit the East German swimming scandal from the 1970s and ’80s, or Lance Armstrong being stripped of his seven Tour de France titles for doping, or Marian Jones and Ben Johnson being stripped of Olympic sprint medals for drug enhancement, or baseball’s steroids scandal in the 1990s and 2000s.
It was Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer, a Princeton professor of bioethics, who said, “Cheats prosper until there are enough who bear grudges against them to make sure they do not prosper.”
OK, OK, you caught me – I Googled “cheating quotes,” which may, in fact, be regarded as cheating by those who like to scour the library for their pithy quotes.
But it’s true – the overwhelming success of the Astros, Patriots and Russian athletes made them a target of those who bore grudges. This cat-and-mouse game will never wane, so get used to it. But it’s going to get more difficult to keep ahead of the cheaters as technology advances.
You can bet that at some point we’re going to have to confront gene doping, which endeavors to alter an athlete’s DNA to produce performance-enhancing substances.
When that happens, there’s probably no turning back. The very nature of performance enhancement, and what can be reasonably regulated, will have to be re-evaluated.
At which point, Sophocles will be rolling in his grave.
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