On Monday, after a lengthy investigation, Major League Baseball announced that the Houston Astros had cheated by using technology to steal signs during the regular season and playoffs of their World Series-winning 2017 season.
Houston general manager, Jeff Luhnow, and manager, A.J. Hinch, were suspended for a year by M.L.B. — and then fired by the Astros’ owner. In addition, the team was stripped of top draft picks and will pay a large fine.
In years to come, this might be the week this age of sports came to be known as the “asterisk era.”
During a decade that brought eye-in-the-sky cameras, rogue chemists, executives with malleable morals and Soviet-era spy craft, those two-fisted disrupters — science and technology — have given cheaters seemingly limitless tools to secure victory on playing fields as diverse as the Olympic Games, Major League Baseball, the N.F.L. and horse racing.
The Houston Astros’ signs-stealing scheme, laid bare in a sober yet searing report from the baseball commissioner on Monday, is the latest embodiment of that old sports saw, “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.” The 2017 World Series champions mixed high-tech with the low-fi — using a television monitor near the dugout to watch the opposing catcher give his pitching signs, then having teammates bang a trash can to let the batter know what was coming.
For supporters of clean sports, this looked like just one more powerful weapon that athletes, teams and organizations used to win games and skirt the fair-play police, one more instance of the truth about a champion spilling out too late.
In 2014, the Russian Olympic Committee augmented its medal haul by having doping experts collaborate with the country’s intelligence services to switch out urine samples through a hole in the testing laboratory’s wall. On their way to six Super Bowl championships, the New England Patriots have been found guilty of using clandestine video surveillance and of somehow ending up with deflated footballs that allowed their quarterback to get a better grip in foul weather. A horse that staged a historic run to the Triple Crown was found to have chemicals associated with performance-enhancing drugs in his system.
Regulators of Olympic sports acknowledge that they are mostly outgunned on the science and technology fronts. Instead, they rely on law enforcement sources, whistle-blowers and moral outrage, all of which are often in short supply.
“It doesn’t take a philosopher to know that if you cheat to win, you’re not really a winner,” said Travis Tygart, the chief executive of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, who is perhaps best known for bringing Lance Armstrong’s extensive doping operation to light.
Tygart and international Olympic officials have taken back gold medals and handed out lifetime bans for cheating. Yet Tygart knows there are athletes who keep trying to become faster and stronger through performance-enhancing drugs. The usual rationalizations: Everyone else is doing it, and winning is worth the risk.
Vacating titles and ending careers are powerful deterrents, but in America’s professional sports leagues, the commissioners have been resistant to mete out such punishments.
M.L.B. Commissioner Rob Manfred handed down yearlong suspensions for Astros Manager A.J. Hinch and General Manager Jeff Luhnow. Both were subsequently fired by the team’s owner, Jim Crane. The Boston Red Sox’ owners, John Henry and Tom Werner, also parted ways with their manager — Alex Cora, who was a bench coach with Houston during its sign-stealing operation and was identified as a major part of the scheme.
In addition, M.L.B. stripped the Astros of their first- and second-round draft picks for the next two years and fined the team $5 million. The Red Sox, who remain under investigation for similar violations, may soon be penalized, too.
Still, Houston retains its title as the 2017 World Series champion. Presumably, Boston will retain its 2018 title. Would stripping those titles make a difference?
“If the goal was to uphold the honesty and sanctity of the game for a broader community, the ultimate penalty is to vacate the wins and the titles,” said Ann Skeet, a sports and leadership ethicist for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at the University of Santa Clara in California. “But there are some built-in conflicts — the commissioner works for the owners. They share revenue. Their fortunes are tied together.”
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