What counts as cheating in sport? And why?

by Emrys Westacott

Baseball has always been a thinking person’s game. Like cricket, it seems able to offer an infinite variety of complicated situations demanding subtle analysis, and these are deliciously frozen for everyone to consider and reconsider during the tense, drawn out intervals between moments of active play. Moreover, although afficianados know the rules well, novel problems can always arise. One such puzzler, amusing and thought-provoking, arose in a 2018 game between

You can watch the incident here. Mets third baseman Todd Frazier ran to catch a foul ball, fell over the barrier into the crowd, and immediately surfaced holding the ball aloft. The umpire ruled it a fair catch. Video replays showed, however, that Frazier had not actually caught the ball that the batter hit. The ball he held up in triumph was an imitation baseball that had been lying on a bench close to where he fell over the fence.

Here’s the question: Did Frazier cheat? Most people to whom I have put this question immediately answer “yes.” I then ask: which rule did he break? A little thought makes it clear that he didn’t break any rule. There is no rule against holding up a rubber ball after missing a catch. And there is certainly no rule requiring players to let umpires know if a decision they’ve made is mistaken. What Frazier did could even, arguably, be compared to “framing,” the strategy catchers use when they subtly shift their catching glove to make the umpire think that a pitch is a strike when in fact it’s a ball.

But even when rules are broken, we may not want to describe an action as cheating.

In basketball, for instance, near the end of a game players will sometimes deliberately foul an opponent. They do this so that, after the penalty shots have been taken, their team can recover possession. Otherwise, their opponents will keep possession and run down the clock. Although the rule breaking here may be flagrant, no-one considers it cheating. It is simply using the system of rules and penalties for rule violations in a strategic way. Extending this perspective, one could say the same about soccer players who commit “professional fouls” and accept the consequences (e.g. penalty kicks, red cards).

Cheating, it turns out, is devilishly hard to define in a way that perfectly accords with all our moral intuitions and also with the conventions governing a wide variety of sports and games. One reason for this is that these conventions differ wildly. In North American ice hockey, fist-fighting is basically tolerated–typically earning the combatants a mere five minute penalty–so long as the players drop their sticks and take off their gloves at the outset. In soccer, that sort of brawling would result in long suspensions, but soccer players will still deceive the referee by secret shirt pulling or feigning injury. In golf, contestants are expected to call penalties on themselves (say, for accidentally touching the ball with their club while lining up a shot), even if no-one else is aware that a penalty is warranted. And they do. The moral conventions that form the parameters within which sports are played vary enormously.

The form of cheating in sport that has probably attracted most attention over the past few years involves the use of performance-enhancing drugs. It offers an interesting case study in how we go about reflecting on novel ethical issues.

The problem is widespread, and sporting authorities have for years been fighting a constant battle against increasingly sophisticated forms of”doping.” Some of these can be very hard to detect.  For instance, one method used by some athletes competing in endurance sports, such as cycling or distance running, aims to increase the number of red blood cells through blood transfusions using the athlete’s own blood.

Given the scale of the problem, and how much time, money, and effort goes into combatting doping in sport, it’s worth asking what, exactly, is objectionable about the practice. There are usually two responses to this question.  (1) It gives the dopers an “unfair” advantage. (2) It can be detrimental to the health of the athletes.

Let’s put aside the second objection. Although correct in some cases, it need not be true in others. So if a drug or procedure could be proved perfectly safe, the objection would be irrelevant. Moreover, this concern for the athlete’s health must seem rather disingenuous in some sports–e.g. boxing, or American football­–where the detrimental long-term effects of participating in the sport itself are well documented.

How valid is the first objection? Well, what makes an advantage “unfair”? The obvious answer is that an advantage is gained unfairly when it is not equally available to everyone. But by itself, this answer is inadequate for several reasons.

  1. Some prohibited drugs and procedures either are or could be equally available to all competitors.
  2. Other performance-enhancing advantages are not equally available to all: e.g. top-class training facilities; adequate free time available for training; expert coaches; well-funded institutional support.
  3. Some advantages are not available to everyone simply because they are innate. E.g. Michael Phelps, who won twenty-three Olympic gold medals for swimming, had an unusual physique: he was 6′ 4″ tall, had a 6′ 7″ wingspan, an usually long torso, and size 14 feet.

Faced with these objections, most people will invoke the distinction between what is natural and what is artificial. Phelps’ physical attributes are natural; testosterone injections are artificial. It’s perfectly reasonable to allow athletes to use whatever natural advantages they happen to enjoy. After all, what would be the alternative? It hardly makes sense to handicap individuals in order to eliminate any innate advantages. (The bizarre absurdity of trying to do this in society at large is portrayed in Kurt Vonnegurt’s short story “Harrison Bergeron.”) Nature bestows her gifts unequally, and we simply accept that.

Of course, superior training facilities, better coaches, and the rest of it can hardly be called “natural” advantages. The fact is, we have here a situation where our current ethical take on the issue is not particularly consistent and is hard to fully justify.

This becomes still more obvious if we press the issue further. Suppose, for instance, that someone with Phelps’ attributes were born with webbed hands. Would it be permissible for them to take advantage of this feature to win swimming medals? Most people will see nothing wrong with that. Taking full advantage of their natural endowments is what athletes do. But what if one of Phelps’ rivals had a surgical enhancement to give himself webbed hands. Would that be permissible? Most people will here cry foul. Why? Because the webbed hands would be an artificial enhancement rather than a natural endowment.

Yet many athletes have surgery to enable them to perform at the highest level. For instance, scores of baseball pitchers have had “Tommy Johns surgery” which replaces a ligament in their throwing arm with a tendon borrowed from elsewhere in the body. Some studies suggest that the surgery enables the pitchers to throw harder than they could before. But no one views this procedure as ethically dubious or unfair. Why not? Obviously, one cannot here invoke the distinction between what is natural and what is artificial. Instead, people will perhaps appeal to a different distinction–between correction and enhancement. Surgically created webbed hands are an artificial enhancement; surgically repaired ligaments are an artificial correction that simply restores a person’s natural capacities.

Here again, though, it is almost impossible to be consistent. Successful major league baseball players need to have much better than normal vision. According to a study reported in David Epstein’s The Sports Gene, the average visual acuity among 400 professional baseball players tested was 20/15 (which means that they can perceive at 20 feet what “normal” people with 20/20 vision can only see at 15 feet). Superior eyesight is so important in baseball, that many players wear contact lenses, and some have eye surgery, in order to give themselves better than average visual acuity. The same is true of many professional golfers. Quite clearly, we are here talking about methods that are artificial rather than natural, and that are positive enhancements rather than mere corrections. So we find ourselves struggling to explain why some artificial enhancements, like eye surgery, are acceptable, and others, like webbed hands, are not.

It is worth reflecting on the course our thinking takes when confronted with conundrums of this sort. We start with an existing moral outlook that we consider basically sound. Asked to justify it, we come up with reasons that seem plausible enough. When these are challenged we produce further justifications that quite possibly played no role in establishing our position. These further arguments in fact look suspiciously like rationalizations: ad hoc attempts to prop up the moral status quo using whatever comes to hand.

One sees the same sort of thing in many different contexts: e.g. in debates over the legalization of marijuana, or gay marriage. The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses the term “moral dumbfounding” to describe the sort of discomfort we feel when we automatically view something as wrong but struggle to come with adequate justifications for our position.

Naturally, few of us enjoy being dumbfounded in this way. We like the sense of being morally secure. The feeling of becoming ethically untethered is anxiety-inducing. This is why dumfounding people is not a way to become popular, as Socrates, the dumfounder par excellence, found out. Yet we should welcome it when people pose the sort of questions that induce dumbfounding. For this is how we loosen up the rusted joints in our thinking about moral matters. And more flexible thinking is precisely what we need in order to deal with the novel moral questions that confront us in a constantly changing world.