Just Win Baby

In Sports by Brock Bourgase

Struggling to keep up with all the latest cheating news and unsure about how my coaching philosophy places all of this in context, I used Al Davis’ motto as a title. From Tim Donaghy to HGH to the New England Patriots, I’m not sure whether the rules should be black and white or shades or grey. How does one define bending the rules to gain an advantage and how is this different from outright rule-breaking by a coach or athlete? Is sport more like professional wrestling – where Hulk Hogan must overcome not only the Iron Shiek but his blatant cheating as well – than a true competition?

There has been no shortage of scandals in recent months (dubbed Cheatwave ’07 by ESPN.com). In order of severity:

Tim Donaghy

Obviously, this is the most serious example of cheating. Referees influencing the outcome or nature of games and players betting against their own teams should not be tolerated. Even those who are tempted to bet for their own teams or gamble on other sports because it can give organized crime leverage over a coach, player, or official.

I’m mildly surprised that the basketball officiating scandal had been limited to Tim Donaghy, who was involved with two of the five most badly officiated games that I watched this year, including a game in the Phoenix-San Antonio season that could have determined the championship. It would make a lot of sense for Association referees to become caught up in gambling; weak calls could be blamed on an interest in the game’s outcome instead of lack of ability, poor position, favoritism towards stars, home court advantage, politics, and the innumerable other factors required to create such inconsistency.

Due to the severity of gambling and the consequences, including threats and violence, infractions should be swiftly and strictly punished.

Performance Enhancing Drugs

One on hand, I believe that professional sport is for entertainment only and athletes should be allowed to do whatever they need to put on the best show. On the other hand, I don’t want sport to get to the point where athletes must endanger their health in order to compete. At some levels, I think that society doesn’t care to have pervasive cheating so it’s necessary to define the murky area of performance enhancing supplements, like steroids and H.G.H..

The scale of the B.A.L.C.O. scandal proves that this is no easy task. As science uncovers more ill effects of controlled substances, it seems more obvious that they should be banned, perhaps at the behest of a health committee comprised of athletes and doctors. Any restrictions on substances should also be standard across all sports, not unique to particular sports and countries.

Espionage in F1 Racing

McLaren-Mercedes’ F1 team was fined one hundred million dollars for attempting to photocopy some of Ferrari’s designs. This malicious attempt to cheat was punished harshly, with good reason. It’s known that auto racing teams often tamper with opposing staff members, poaching pit crew members and engineers in order to gain knowledge about their competitors but this is worse because it laws and rules were consciously broken.

Scouting, noting tendencies, and analyzing signals are part of the subterfuge that occurs in all sports. But like attempts to injure a competitor, teams should not be able to actively sabotage each other or tamper with another organizer in a way that unjustly rewards the team with greater resources.

Using Technology to Cheat in the N.F.L.

It’s tremendously difficult to identify everyone who cheats throughout sport and often the exercise involves splitting hairs: is stealing signals in the N.F.L. different from stealing signs in baseball? I think that it becomes different when technology is involved. I don’t think one thing should lead to another so that game preparation becomes more Spy vs. Spy than us vs. them.

Conceivably, a home team with more staff on hand or a large-market team with more money to spend could make use of video technology unavailable to the visiting team. Coaches covering their faces to prevent lip-reading or scouts in the stands with binoculars is a throwback to yesterday; when excessive technology is employed, it changes the nature of the game.

Questions to Ask

How do gamesmanship and sportsmanship co-exist? Some cases of cheating are clearly over the line and should be banned because they comprise the integrity of sport. Other examples are less clear-cut and difficult to define. I’d set the rules based on protecting players’ health and preventing the home team from having an undue advantage but there would be a fair amount of anything goes, so to speak.

Professional sport owns an auspicious history of players and coaches doing whatever it takes to get an edge: altering the field of play to suit the home team (As Buck Showalter said: “One of the best relationships you need to have is with your home groundskeeper. Whether it’s length of grass or the texture of the dirt, there are a lot of things teams try to do to accentuate their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.”), telephoning the visiting players late at night in their hotel room, making the opposing locker rooms tremendously uncomfortable, and more.

Many fans look back on “old-time” cheating with nostalgia. I think there is a place for this, as it rewards those who use their head and think creatively. Accurate knowledge of the rulebook from cover to cover is part of a coach’s responsibilities. Referee interpretations of different cases is part of the rulebook so when a player recognizes when an official isn’t watching their area and understands the freedoms that they have during these times, they are still playing within the rules.

No to gambling, pressuring players to compromise their health, and intending to injure an opponent. Likewise, situations that provide the home team an advantage should be eliminated. But in the other situations, it’s so difficult to nitpick and allow one action while preventing something similar. Rules should be fair and even-handed, not subjective.

Fundamentally, sport is a vehicle for self-actualization. Athletes and coaches play the game in order to make the most of themselves. People must also follow a set of morals that satisfies their own needs, most of all. But if someone is performing and winning by compromising principles like fairness and respect for the opponent, are they truly reaching their potential?

“A gold medal is a wonderful thing. But if you’re not enough without one, you’ll never be enough with one.”
– Irv Blitzer