Some of us–poor, benighted souls that we are–believe that there is some kind of equity in sports. Even after years of painful experience tells us that no higher power could possibly be paying attention to the sports world, we cling to the notion that if we behave like a good person, help with household chores without being asked to do so, follow a particular routine, and wear a lucky shirt, or socks, or hat, or some other item of apparel, the fickle sports gods will notice and tilt the karma in our favor. A key belief, underlying all of the superstition, is that someone somewhere will notice that we are doing those good things and displaying our commitment to our team and reward us with wins and, we hope, championships.

If you ever needed proof that there is no equity whatsoever in sports, here it is: the Houston Astros have made the World Series for the third time in five years.

The Astros engaged in a one of the worst sports cheating scandals since the Chicago Black Sox threw the World Series in 1919. The team intentionally stole signs in 2017, when they won the World Series, and for part of 2018 until their scheme was uncovered. The Astros–who some people dubbed the “Asterisks,” as in the logo above, to reflect that the franchise won the championship by cheating–were fined $5 million, lost a few draft picks, and fired some of their front office personnel. But the team’s owner remained in place, the Astros hung their championship banner, and no punishment was meted out to the players who participated in the cheating. Remember that the next time you hear somebody in organized baseball talking about needing to do something to protect the “integrity of the game.”

If there were justice and equity in sports, the Astros wouldn’t be going to another World Series, and making people wonder whether those guys who figured out a way to cheat before might somehow be cheating again. But they are. The Astros owner says he thinks the scandal is in the rear view mirror, but there are many of us who remember, and who think the lack of accountability for flagrant cheating is a continuing black eye for baseball.

I can’t do anything about equity in sports, but I can do one thing: not watch any game the Astros play. I therefore won’t be watching the World Series this year.

Sign-Stealing Scandal

The baseball world has been rocked by the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal, and this week it was further rocked by the punishments handed down by the baseball commissioner.  For implementing a process to systematically steal signs and convey them to Astros batters, the general manager and the manager of the Astros were suspended for a year, the team was fined the maximum of $5 million, and the team lost first-round and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021.  The manager and the general manager were then fired by the team’s owner.

tlqy3-1578949177-155192-blog-houstonastrosThere’s a lot of anger about the scandal, and the punishments.  The Astros won a World Series title in 2017, after a post-season run in which Major League Baseball determined that the Astros were cheating by stealing signs.  The Astros get to keep that tainted title.  The owner of the team wasn’t disciplined beyond paying the fine.  And even though the baseball investigators determined that the whole scandal was “player-driven,” no players have so far been punished.  The awards the players won for their performance, the hits they got after being tipped off about the pitches to come, and the accolades and bonuses and salary increases they received all are so far undisturbed.  Among some people in the baseball world, there’s a feeling that the Astros and their players got off easy, with only a few fall guys punished for an institutionalized cheating process that had to have involved virtually everyone in the franchise.

From a fan’s perspective, it’s the breadth and scope of the cheating that really takes your breath away.  To the extent that anyone still clings to the notion that baseball is the pure sport depicted in Field of Dreams, the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal has crushed that notion, once and for all.  And because everybody in the Astros organization seemingly was in on it, the impact of the scandal goes beyond past scandals involving individual players who might have taken illegal substances, or thrown spitballs, or flouted the rules in other individual ways.  The sign-stealing scandal also makes you wonder about things like Pete Rose’s lifetime ban.  Long-time readers of this blog know that I despise Pete Rose, but is the fact that he bet on games really worse than what the Houston Astros did?

Nobody on the Astros apparently cared that the team was breaking the rules, cheating, and getting an unfair advantage — and that’s pretty disillusioning.  It makes the fan wonder just how widespread  the cheating mentality, and the cheating itself, really is.  How do we ever assure ourselves that the winners won, fair and square?

Those Burly, Cheating Russians

In an ever-changing world, it’s nice to know that some things never change — like the Russians cheating at sports events.

The World Anti-Doping Agency has released a scathing, 323-page report that concludes that, in Russia, “acceptance of cheating at all levels is widespread.”  The report cites incidents in which a testing lab director ordered more than 1,000 samples destroyed in order to thwart the investigation and evidence that the Russian Federal Security Service interfered with testing, intimidated lab workers and even posed as lab engineers during the Sochi Olympics, which Russia hosted, to infiltrate and impede testing efforts.  The upshot is that Russia’s efforts allowed athletes who were suspected of cheating to continue to compete in international contests, including the Olympics.  The chair of the body that issued the report said:  “It’s worse than we thought.”

The chair also said that Russia’s state-sponsored cheating “may be the residue of the old Soviet Union system.”  If so, that’s some pretty long-lasting residue!  The Soviet Union ended more than 20 years ago.

Still, the reference to the Soviet Union brought back fond memories of the Olympics of the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s, when it was the United States versus the Soviet bloc and Russian and East German athletes were widely suspected to be doping.  The East German women, in particular, were famous for their burly, broad-shouldered, extraordinarily mannish physiques.  Everybody figured they were cheating, but they never seemed to get caught, and the extent of the doping wasn’t exposed until later.

Now the Russians have been exposed as cheaters, and international sports entities are saying that Russian athletes may be banned from the Olympics unless there is reform, immediately.  The Russians respond that this is all a politically motivated witch hunt linked to Russia’s incursions into Ukraine.  (Seriously!)  It’s the classic Russian blame somebody else response.

This is all just sports, of course, but it does make you think:  how can we ever trust these guys?  If the Russians are flagrantly and systematically cheating at sports events, and Russian agents are interfering with testing to allow the cheating to continue, how can we ever credit their agreement to any kind of treaty or peace accord?


Harvard’s Muddled Cheating Scandal

On Friday, Harvard University announced that it had imposed academic sanctions on dozens of students involved in a cheating scandal.  The back story tells you a lot about the state of modern education — even at an exalted academic institution like Harvard.

The incident involved an undergraduate course called “Introduction to Congress” that was seen as a gut course — that is, an easy A.  The scandal came to light when a teaching assistant for the course noticed that students may have shared answers to the “take home” final exam.  After an investigation that took months, Harvard’s academic integrity board announced that a number of students were required to withdraw from the school for several terms, others were put on probation, and others received no disciplinary action at all.  The President of Harvard’s Undergraduate Council says that the withdrawing students shouldn’t feel “alienated” from Harvard and should be embraced when they return.

A letter from a Harvard alum about the scandal raises some interesting questions.  According to his letter, the professor teaching the course had previously encouraged “open collaboration” on his exams.  He then changed the rules to say that the students couldn’t collaborate with professors, teaching fellows, “and others,”  the letter alleges, but some teaching fellows for the course nevertheless went over the exam in open sessions with students.  The vaguely defined rules, the letter suggests, led students to engage in lots of collaboration — although even the letter writer concedes that some students “went too far, literally cutting and pasting their answers.”

What does this incident say about Harvard?  For one, it tells you something about its academic rigor.  A class called “Introduction to Congress” that encourages “open collaboration” and features a “take home” final exam that TAs discuss with students beforehand sounds more like a community college course than an Ivy League offering.  It also tells you something about Harvard students.  Even with a basic subject area that is taught in every American high school and the luxury of a take-home final, some students were so dim-witted and unprincipled they thought they could get away with cutting and pasting answers of other students.  The students don’t exactly come out of this sounding like the cream of the crop, do they?  And finally, it tells you something about the hidebound nature of colleges, and the general atmosphere on campuses, that the investigation of a cheating scandal takes months and even students who blatantly cut and pasted answers are only required to withdraw for a few semesters, to be “embraced” on their return.

If Harvard, and other American colleges, don’t want to be seen as diploma mills, how about taking this approach:  have a meaningful honor code, offer challenging courses, require students to appear in the classroom for the exam and write their answers on paper, act promptly when potential cheating is detected, and punish those who violate the rules rather than telling them they will be welcomed back with a hug.

When Teachers Cheat

From Atlanta comes a deeply disturbing story about a massive cheating scandal to achieve higher scores on standardized tests.  In this instance, however, the cheaters weren’t students — they were teachers, principals, and administrators.

In Georgia, as in many other states, student and teacher performance is measured by scores on a standardized test.  In this instance, the test is called the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.  In recent years, Atlanta schools reported increases in scores on the test, winning accolades for the Atlanta school district and its superintendent, who was named “U.S. Superintendent of the Year” in 2009.  Now investigators have unearthed evidence of a massive conspiracy in which teachers, principals, and administrators not only changed answers to achieve better scores, but also worked actively to cover up the cheating.  The report by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation names 178 teachers and administrators who participated — 82 of whom have confessed to their misdeeds — in a scandal that took place at 44 different schools.

According to the Christian Science Monitor article linked above, reports of teacher cheating have been increasingly commonplace across America.  Atlanta’s scholastic scandal is just the largest example of a growing problem.  Educational advocates say the reports show that standardized testing is not a panacea, because tying school district funding and individual teacher compensation to higher scores just provides an incentive to cheat.  So, they recommend that school districts implement much more involved auditing of the completed standardized tests.

The Atlanta scandal is a black eye for the many dedicated and selfless teachers in America, and it raises a very basic, troubling question for public school parents across the country:  What kind of people are teaching my kids?

The President’s Golf Outing, And Rules Of The Game

Today President Obama, Vice President Biden, House Speaker John Boehner, and Ohio Governor John Kasich tee off for a round of golf.  They say they will talk about deficit reduction and other political issues as they travel around the course, and also will use the round as a chance to get to know one another better.

Golf can be a good bridge-builder between people who don’t know each other very well, but it also can reveal things about your playing companions that aren’t very positive.  For example, some golfers like to bet on the game every time they play.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you do you’d better have been honest about your handicap and you’d better play by the rules.  There’s nothing worse than a sandbagger with a phony handicap who mysteriously manages to shoot a “career round” every time a bet is on the line, or a cheater who drops a ball to avoid a lost ball penalty or kicks his ball into better position.

There are other bad things to watch out for, too.  Is the guy you’ve been paired with a chatterbox, a braggart, or a bore?  Is he a slow player, or an incessant waggler?  Does he give unwanted advice about your swing?  If he is playing poorly, does he give tiresome post mortems about the surprising crappiness of his game?  Does he concede putts that reasonably should be conceded, or does he take “gimmes” that really aren’t “gimmes” at all?  If betting is involved, how does he perform when the match is on the line?  And if he does not prevail, is he a sore loser?

Golf can tell you a lot about a person whom you don’t know very well.  It would be interesting to know what perceptions get formed as a result of today’s leisurely match.

Sumo Scandals

The ideal of sport is a pristine competition in which skill and merit will determine the victor.  Often, matches begin with the statement:  “May the best man win!”  Of course, the reality often falls short of that ideal — and in America, the NCAA spends a lot of its time trying to police the cheaters.

Cheating is not a problem that is limited to America.  Pakistani cricketers are embroiled in a cheating scandal in which they are accused of (honest!) “bowling deliberate no-balls.” And Japan is being rocked by a sumo wrestling scandal.  Thirteen senior sumo wrestlers are implicated in a match-fixing scandal that is so serious that the Japanese Sumo Association grand tournament has been canceled for the first time in 65 years.  (This should not be wholly unexpected; years ago the book Freakonomics, by Stephen D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, postulated, based on a statistical analysis, that sumo involved rampant match-fixing.)

For Japan, however, the corruption in sumo is more difficult to accept than, say, an NCAA college football recruiting scandal.  Sumo has its origins in ancient religious rites and has been an organized activity in Japan for centuries.  It is generally viewed as Japan’s national sport.  The scandal strikes at the heart of sumo and is so serious that even Japan’s prime minister has spoken out about it.  He says that if match-fixing has occurred, “it is a very serious betrayal of the people.”

The reaction in Japan is probably akin to the reaction in America when people learned that the 1919 World Series was fixed.  That was a more innocent time,  when baseball was America’s undisputed national pastime and it was unimaginable that players would fix a game and betray their fans.  I wonder if, somewhere in Japan, a young boy will go up to one of the accused sumo champions and cry out:  “Say it ain’t so, Joe!”