When Titles Are Tarnished but Not Taken Away

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.”

It’s true that lines between right and wrong have become blurry. Stealing signs in baseball is as old as the game, though using electronics (or stationing a scout with binoculars and signaling equipment in the center-field stands) is illegal. N.F.L. teams study endless hours of video of opponents, but filming opposing coaches is a no-no. Performance-enhancing drugs are illegal, unless officials grant an exemption for a drug that, say, treats asthma.

But the rules are there, and F. Clark Power worries that by flouting them, more is being lost than a sense of fair play. Power is the founder of the Play Like a Champion program, which promotes character education through sports and focuses on proper coaching instruction in youth sports, especially for at-risk children.

He likes to reference what he sees when he witnesses the joy of 7-year-olds playing hide-and-seek.

“Every one of them knows that to have a fair game, you’ve got to keep your eyes closed while you count,” said Power, who has taught at the University of Notre Dame since 1982.

“We need to understand, if we are going to endorse cheating as a means to an end, the children are watching,” he said. “So it becomes a question of how do you want to raise your kids? We can’t get much lower as a culture if cheating is no longer a moral issue but a form of coping. We need to change the conversation.”

Accountability rolled downhill when an investigation into the Patriots found it “more probable than not” that quarterback Tom Brady was “at least generally aware” that the balls used in his team’s victory over the Indianapolis Colts in the 2015 A.F.C. Championship Game had been deflated.

The franchise, which is owned by Robert K. Kraft, had tangled seven years earlier with N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell over a sign-stealing scheme. Scouts filmed the sidelines of upcoming opponents and matched play calls to actual plays so Patriots players would know what was coming. The scheme and investigation became known as “Spygate.” The N.F.L. fined Bill Belichick, the head coach, fined the franchise and took away the team’s first-round draft pick.

A few weeks after the crime that came to be known as “Deflategate,” Brady and the Patriots defeated Seattle, 28-24, in Super Bowl XLIX. Eventually, Brady was suspended four games, and the franchise was fined $1 million and docked two draft picks. And yet this season, the Patriots were at it again, their video cameras drifting to the sideline of an upcoming opponent.

America’s professional leagues do not have a monopoly on conflicts of interest. In April 2018, a colt named Justify failed a doping test after winning the Santa Anita Derby, a victory the horse needed to qualify for the Kentucky Derby the following month.

Under California horse racing rules, Justify should have been disqualified and his $600,000 purse money returned. Instead, California regulators waited four months to render judgment, by which point the colt had become the 13th Triple Crown winner and been sold as a stallion for $60 million.

In a closed-door executive session, the California Horse Racing Board ruled that the failed drug test had been caused by environmental contamination. Its chairman at the time, Chuck Winner, owned an interest in horses trained by Justify’s trainer. The board’s maneuvering came to light after The New York Times reported on how a lack of transparency had kept the failed test from the public.

Another champion, another asterisk.

Power, the Play Like a Champion founder, describes himself as an old guy, but one who still often plays in pickup basketball games.

Where, he wonders, have joy and honor on the competition field gone? Worse, what if sports fans fall as far behind in moral outrage as regulators have in science and technology?

“There’s a code in those games that you don’t cheat,” he said of his pickup basketball exploits.