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Tuesday 30 June 2020

Cheating vs Innovation in Sports

Why do some changes in sports end up being considered cheating, and others innovation? Let's look at some historical examples for patterns.
In baseball, "the shift" is a strategy in which defensive players deviate, or ‘shift’ from the default locations for their positions to locations closer to where they expect the ball to land. This practice has had a measurable statistical effect on the game; hits other than home runs have become rarer, and the hits that do happen are more often singles compared to seasons before 2010. The shift is simply data-driven strategy and yet the practice is still controversial.

It seems like such an arbitrary thing to call out as unfair

The Defensive Shift

Let's start with the shift. In the 2010, almost nobody used it. By 2019, almost everybody did, and players carried index cards of where they should be in anticipation of each batter.  In 2015, the league commissioner publicly talked about banning the shift ( https://www.si.com/mlb/2015/01/26/rob-manfred-defensive-shifts-mlb-commissioner ) and the mechanics of the ban were still being discussed in 2018 ( https://www.si.com/mlb/2018/07/25/defensive-shifts-official-baseball-rules  )

The movement of fielders isn’t new. The fielding players have always had the freedom to move about into each others’ traditional areas, which is why calling for the ball in pop-up is a fundamental skill taught at the little-league level for kids 12 and younger. Those traditional placements came about so that there would always be someone near where the ball would be hit, but those placements were decided upon before we collectively had data on the tendencies of every individual hitter.

It’s unclear how a ban on the shift would be enforced. Would they paint bright pink spots where the outfielders would have to stand until the ball was hit? Would there be marked-off territory for each fielder to be confined within? Would they ban the notes cards that tell fielders where to be before each batter appears? Would there need to be additional umpires in the outfield? (MLB baseball already uses three umpires and video review).

The shift is staying; it’s a part of the game at least until batters learn to either be less predictable, or to hit a home run every time. Why was there any controversy at all? My guess is the newness of the practice (circa 2015) compared to the oldness of modern baseball (circa 1860). As the reaction to the shift shows us, age plays a big part in the reason some changes in play become ‘innovations’ and others become ‘cheating’.

Before the concrete sets: Ball Dimples and Belly Putters

There seems to be balance between how new a sport is how big of a change in being made to the game. In the original Scottish version of golf, golf balls were smooth and could rarely be hit further than 40 metres because of air resistance. Today, amateurs hit golf balls more than 200 metres. The secret is dimples; they minimize air resistance and maintain laminar flow so that the ball flies in a smooth parabolic arc.

That one equipment change radically alters golf. If the ball can be hit 5 as far, the courses need to be 5 times as long to maintain difficulty. That’s 5 times as much land and 5 times as much maintenance. Any pre-dimple course is laughably obsolete. Players with dimpled balls are playing a different sport compared to their smooth-ball competitors. But dimples were introduced to golf early enough that there wasn’t enough traditionalist pushback to enforce smooth balls. The dimple stuck.

Fast-forward to 2011 and the adoption of the ‘belly putter’ by pros. A putter is the only kind of golf club allowed to be used in the short-range portion of each hole, the green. Here, accuracy and steadiness-of-hand are critical. There are very strict rules about the shape and weight of the ‘face’, the part of the club that actually touches the ball, but not so much the handle. The belly putter is just an ordinary putter with a longer handle, which allows a player to press the end of the putter against their gut and provide extra steadiness. By 2013 the major governing bodies of golf had unanimously adopted a rule that forbade using your gut as an anchor. ( https://www.thestar.com/sports/golf/2013/05/21/belly_putter_controversy_golf_adopts_rule_to_outlaw_putters_anchored_to_the_body.html)

I wonder what the anti-dimple crowd would have said about that ruling.

Pace of Play: Dribbling and The Trapezoid 

Sometimes things are considered cheating to preserve the entertainment value of the sport. Belly-putting looks stupid and it’s less impressive than regular putting. Famed NHL goalie Martin Brodeur regularly used a tactic in which he would leave the net and take control of the puck behind the net in order to pass to a teammate. He was relatively safe from opposing interference because of the protections afforded to goalies in hockey and soccer. This tactic was made illegal by the introduction of ‘the trapezoid’, a marked region behind the net where the goalie cannot touch the puck. What Brodeur was doing wasn’t dangerous, but it did make the game slower and less exciting.

Basketball was designed to be a stand-and-pass game. It underwent a nearly dimple-sized transformation with the addition of dribbling or bouncing the ball on the ground. Dribbling was originally a hack; it was a workaround by which you technically passed the ball to yourself. Dribbling changes the game radically, but it was probably allowed because the sport was very young at the time. Dribbling makes basketball a much faster, rougher, and entertain sport than James Naismith originally designed, but at least it didn’t invalidate all the basketball courts made before then.

Safety: The Fosbury Flop and Skating Backflips

Maybe dribbling was easier to accept because it was a change in technique and not equipment. The high jump has been a competitive endeavor since the discovery of legs by famed 12th century merchant Thomas Jump (modern scholars actually believe he had merely copied the idea of jumping from the Chinese). Until 1968, high jump competitors hopped over poles as if they were hurdles: leaving the ground with their feet, staying upright, and then landing on their feet. Then along came Dick Fosbury, who instead jumped at the bar sideways and twisted his body around and above the pole like an inverted limbo dancer, only to fall on the ground on his side. This became know and the Fosbury Flop and it was mind-blowing. In the traditional jumping strategy, you had to get your whole body over the bar at once. With the Flop, only a part of your body needed to be above the bar at any time. A proper Flopper might clear the bar without ever having their center of mass above the bar.
The Fosbury Flop was so effective that other competitors saw it and started practicing it while waiting for their turn to compete during the event. ( http://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/packages/html/sports/year_in_sports/10.20.html )

After Fosbury painfully earned the high jumping gold medal at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, officials went along it and placed a soft cushion next to the high-jump bar to mitigate the risk that comes with landing scorpion-style on your face.

Often cheating just comes down to safety. The backflip is banned from figure skating, even though it’s a lot like a Fosbury Flop. Maybe ice skates would cut up the landing cushion.

Safety also explains why most performance enhancing drugs are banned in most competitions. The ban reduces the incentive to use drugs that could have problematic long-term effects. You might not consider chess a sport, but the World Anti-Doping Agency considers it enough of one to ban certain substances:  Adderal, Ritalin, Modafinil, and excessive levels of caffeine.

In soccer, it used to be common to rush in and assault and otherwise interfere with the goalie in order to score or help a teammate score. This resulted in a lot of goalie injuries and protections for players have been put in since. A lot of rule changes are meant for player safety, often taking the choice away from players and coaches in order to eliminate the effect of peer pressure on taking additional risks (e.g. in the case of mandatory protective gear like helmets and cups).


Using Technology: Fancy Swimsuits and the Houston Asterisks

Equipment requirements need to be updated regularly to maintain safety and entertainment value. Acceptable sizes of hockey goalie pads seem to be changed every few years. Equipment requires need to be updated even when the dynamics of a sport don’t change.

In the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, swimmers wearing the Speedo LZR Racer, a full-body swimsuit that “it compressed a swimmer’s body into a streamlined tube and trapped air, adding buoyancy and reducing drag. Speedo says 98 percent of the medals at the 2008 Olympics were won by swimmers wearing the LZR.“ By 2009, full-body swimsuits were banned from competitions, along with some materials. Competitive swimwear that covers an approved area still allowed, and swimwear design is still actively being advanced, but new designs need to be approved the governing swimming body, FINA, before being allowed in races. ( https://web.archive.org/web/20150426215139/http://www.fina.org/H2O/docs/rules/FRSA.pdf  ) ( https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-speedo-created-swimsuit/ )

The Houston Astros sign stealing scandal was a source of armchair rage-judgement from the end of the 2019 season all the way up until World War Flu came to America. In baseball, the pitcher and catcher work in a partnership against the other team’s batter. The catcher squats close behind the batter and uses hand signals to tell the pitcher how to throw the ball so that they can, well, catch it. Since the batter needs to watch the pitcher at all times, and since the catcher is behind the batter, the catcher usually has free reign to communicate with the pitcher in secret.

You know what this needs a picture. I usually explain this part with charades or pantomime, and *wiggles fingers with neon-painted nails* doesn’t translate to text like you’d think.

"Swing and a Miss" by PMillera4 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0  from left to right, that's the Umpire (e.g. Judge, Referee), Catcher, and Batter. The pitcher is off-camera where all three are looking. See how the batter can't watch the catcher and batter at the same time?

However, baseball is played with more than three people, sometimes. Sometimes that batter has some help, like a runner on second base who is in the perfect position to see *wiggles fingers* from the catcher. That runner might notice that one type of wiggle signals a fastball to be thrown, and that another wiggle signals a curveball to be thrown. The runner then tells their batting teammate what throw to expect, thus conferring an advantage to them. That reading and communicating of catcher’s signals is called “sign-stealing”. It has been in baseball ever since catchers used signals.

So what did the Astros do that was so bad? They stole signs too well. Rather than hope for a runner on second, someone in the stands had a very expensive camera trained on the opposing catcher’s hands to watch to *wiggles fingers*. That hot info was sent to Astros’ teammates or employees who would warn the batter about certain pitches with a loud whistle or the bang of a trash can.

This continued through the 2017, 2018, and 2019 seasons, as found by regular old fans combing through broadcast footage after suspicions got too high. Suspensions and millions of dollars in fines were handed out the Astros, and the team’s ability to bring in top new players was reduced for a couple of future seasons. Others called for the Astros to be stripped of their 2017 World Series win. Months of bedlam ensued.

But what exactly was the cheat? If sign-stealing has been in the game forever, what was the transgression? This time it wasn’t just a better use of an old technique, but the introduction of new technology and an unequal access to the advantage. A lot of the parts in this form of sign-stealing could only be done in at home games in Houston. It introduced new equipment to the game without the league’s consent. It made people sad.

(For way more discussion on recent cheating, see 538's Hot Takedown podcast episode on scandals of the century, including the Houston Astros controversy)

Is it the deception factor? That the Astros hid that they had this privileged information, or that they were preventing the opposing pitchers from deceiving Astros batters? Baseball has a complicated history with deception.


Not asking permission: Stealing Bases and Pulling Goalies

Stealing bases (running from one base to the next when the ball is still in pitcher’s hand) is okay. It’s only because somebody noticed that it wasn’t explicitly banned, tried it in an early MLB game, and argued that it should be allowed during the game. The umpires just went with it and the rest is history.

On the other hand, balking, a deceptive pitching strategy meant as a disincentive to stealing* (and to disorient batters) results in a one-base penalty.

(For more on Stealing Bases, see 1st by SB Nation on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VdMPxmZ8CDU )

Around the same time as the first stolen base, Art Ross executed the brilliant idea in an NHL hockey playoff game in 1931. Near the end of game that his Montreal Canadiens were losing by one goal to the Boston Bruins, he decided to ‘pull the goalie’. When a coach pulls the goalie, the net minder leaves play in exchange for an additional attacker. 

The team using this tactic is still technically only keeping six players on the ice at a time, but the goalie is governed by different rules and has different equipment. But what if Art Ross had never tried exchanging a goalie for another skating, mobile player? The first season of the NHL was the winter of 1917-18, so this was season 14. Would goalie-pulling be banned if someone had first tried it in 1950 instead? 1980? 2020? (See: Dan Diamond (2002). Total Hockey: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Hockey League, Second Edition. New York: total Sports Publishing. p. 204.)

Tricking the officials: Pitch Framing and Diving

Pitch framing, which is the intentional deception of the officials in baseball is considered okay. It’s hard to enforce like the shift, but part of the problem is that whether a pitch counts as a strike or not is still a matter of human judgment.

Judgment rules are often thorny, and while often necessary, they also often make the sport in question worse. Diving and faking injuries and impacts, which is the intentional deception of officials to draw penalties in soccer, results in a fine if you get caught. Diving sucks, but it is a winning strategy because it exploits judgment. On the other side, when judgment is removed, like the in the case of video review of goals, the entertainment quality can suffer from delays. There’s really no winning if you’re a soccer referee.

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