Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sportsmanship, ethics, and cheating

I generally do not care for the work of Selena Roberts (formerly of The Times, now of Sports Illustrated). She was one of the worst of the Mike Nifong apologists during the Duke lacrosse case and she pushed the "maybe-they-didn't-commit-rape-but-it-doesn't-matter-because-they-hired-a-stripper-so-they-deserved-what-happened-to-them" line even after. Her SI columns see few shades of gray in the world.

Her latest morality play comes from Connecticut high school football. The coach at Southington High got hold of the opposing team's coded play list, which had fallen off a player's armband during first half. The coach used the play list (how many times seems to be in dispute) during the second half to alert his players to what the opposing team was going to run. Southington won 28-14 (the game had been tied at the half). The coach is D.J. Hernandez, a former UConn captain and the brother of Aaron, who plays tight end for the New England Patriots. Hernandez was suspended for one game. The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference is reviewing the case. Roberts insists that a forfeit is required. And she takes a parting shot at one CIAC member, who is quoted as saying "It's what we call ethics between coaches and good sportsmanship; I don't believe it's cheating per se."

But did Hernandez cheat? First, I am not sure how much of a role it really plays. Teams often know what the other team is going to run or what their plays are--sometimes through good scouting and game preparation, sometimes because of movement between coaching staffs. Recall the Bucs players claims that they knew exactly what the Raiders were going to run during Super Bowl XXXVII--Tampa coach Jon Gruden previously had coached the Raiders. And, of course, "stealing signs" is part of baseball. This is not precisely the same, obviously. But the "advantage" Hernandez's team gained (knowing what plays were being called) is one that often is sought and gained within the rules of the game.

Cheating to me implies breaking rules. In the absence of a prohibition on using the other team's found play list, this does not seem like cheating. Yes, it is bad sportsmanship and probably unethical--not the kind of behavior we would like coaches to engage in. Roberts compares this to NBA players flopping on charges, or Derek Jeter pretending to be hit by a pitch, or Reggie Bush pushing Matt Leinert across the goal line--all of which Roberts sees as examples of society's (and sport's) moral decline. Actually, I find what Hernandez did worse than any of these, as a matter of sportsmanship. Not sure why--maybe because players cannot get away with any of that if the officials are doing a decent job of calling games in the moment. Hernandez was not going to be caught at this by an official on the ground. So, Roberts is right that we should hope for better from coaches, especially at the high school level. And we could have fun with this question in a game of Scruples. On the other hand, this is far from the greatest ethical/sportsmanship breach in history.

But Roberts wants Southington to forfeit its win, a punishment that seems excessive, because it suggests a level of wrongdoing that, absent a clear prohibition on the conduct at issue, is not present here.