Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Levels of Cheating

Part of why I think we struggle with issues like PEDs and the Hall of Fame is that we think of moral issues in a binary yes/no way.  Is the behavior in question "cheating."  If yes, then it's an offense that should deny someone of any awards, and if not, then it's no big deal.  Or that it is hypocritical to deny entrance to PED cheaters and not to other cheaters.

Regardless of the morality of the actual offense, leagues (and those invested in the league) have an interest in forming a strong social sanction against cheating, which would include denying the highest honor to those guilty (or strongly suspected) of cheating.

But not all cheating is created equal.  I'm going to present below a continuum of what I think we've considered different levels of cheating, and examples of each.  For this purpose, there are two types of rules:


  • Safety rules: Put in place for the safety of the players.
  • Competitive rule: A rule designed to set the parameters for the game or make it more entertaining; e.g. dribbling the ball in basketball, 



  1. Getting away with an (unplanned) infraction against a competitive rule that should have been called.
    1. Taking an extra step in basketball
    2. Holding in football.
    3. "Framing" a pitch on the corner to get it called a strike
  2. Exploiting a loophole in the rules that goes against the spirit of the game
    1. Stall tactics (four corners) in basketball before the shot clock
    2. Intentionally fouling on defense when up by three.
    3. Taking a knee at the goal line / letting the other team score
    4. Calling timeout while falling out of bounds
  3. Attempts to falsely get the other side called for an infraction
    1. Diving
  4. Building a game strategy based on non-enforcement or limited enforcement of a competitive rule
    1. Allen Iverson's cross-over/carry
    2. Pitchers scouting umpires and pitching to where they call strikes rather than the rule book strike zone.
    3. Running a "pick play" in football.
    4. Building a defensive strategy out of grabbing receivers, knowing the refs won't call illegal contact on every play.
  5. Deliberately and deceptively break a competitive rule with premeditation.
    1. Use illegal equipment
    2. Build your pitching strategy around doctoring the ball.
  6. Break a safety rule intentionally for purposes of intimidation
    1. Take "hard fouls" early in a basketball game
    2. Put bounties on players / target injuring body parts of players
  7. Build a team or individual strategy around breaking safety rules
    1. An football team on offense that trains its lineman to illegally cut block.
  8. Outright criminal activity (deliberately) impacting life outside of the game.
    1. Drugging an opposing player to keep him out of an upcoming game
    2. Kidnapping an opposing players' family so he will be distracted during the game.
Levels 1-4 enjoy almost universal acceptance.  In fact, a player who would refuse to engage in these acts would generally be considered a poor teammate, and would likely lose his job to one with the same abilities but fewer scruples.   Nobody would keep Micheal Jordan out of the Hall of Fame because he often got away with traveling or pushed off on the final game winning shot.  Some readers would probably challenge whether these (particularly #2) ought to rightfully be considered cheating.

Level 5 infractions would likely meet with some immediate disapproval, but ultimate forgiveness and fond memories of the transgressor's competitive drive and willingness to not get bossed around by the authorities.

Once we get to  Level 6, which is where we get to premeditated attempts to injure someone, we're getting more toward the Oakland Raiders type fringes, and then few would publicly defend actions in Level 7 and 8.

And even though this is already complex, there are subtleties that this doesn't capture.  Golf developed a strong culture of following the rules such that some believe players should disqualify for failing to cite themselves for infractions they were unaware of.  Many believed that Luis Suarez taking a deliberate handball to save the World Cup game was terrible sportsmanship.

The line between safety and competitive rules is not always exactly straight, either.  Sure the NFL would prefer its players be safe, all other things being equal.  But it also recognizes that a league where Peyton Manning plays all 16 games, breaks records, and his team makes the playoffs will draw more viewers than one where he only plays 8 games and the playoffs go on without him.  Or one where he plays football rather than a safer sport.

Still, I think this is a pretty good map of how I at least think about "cheating," and how I think the rest of us do. Next, I'll look at how PED fits into this hierarchy.
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