Category Archives: gamesmanship

Shredding the unwritten rulebook on the Tour de France

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“Sticky bottle”

Here’s a great case study on the phenomenon of “gentlemanly” unwritten rules in a sport. Several different examples; justified or criticized on different grounds; enforced in different ways; threatened for different reasons. H/t Chris MacDonald

 

 

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The Clock Doesn’t Lie:  Gaming, Cheating, and the case of Julie Miller

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Corked Bats. Blood doping. Deflated footballs —after a while, we almost cease to be surprised when another story surfaces of a professional athlete engaging in shady (or outright banned) practices to gain an upper hand in competition. Without excusing such behavior, we might recognize that professional players and programs perhaps face greater temptation to cheat than an average person: after all, millions of dollars are on the line in these professional contests, right? Plus, after finding out that competitors are cheating, players may feel that they too need to cheat in order to stay competitive, resulting in a race to the bottom as a culture of cheating takes hold.

If we were to accept such assumptions about the reasons for cheating in sports, the case of Canadian triathlete Julie Miller would appear all the more bizarre. A recent article in the New York Times details how Miller’s competitors and fellow triathletes used timing data, race photos, and spectator testimony to accuse Miller, who competes in the female 40-44 division of Ironman races, of skipping portions of the 2015 Ironman Canada. Miller apparently has a knack for “losing” her timing chip.

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When competitors and spectators couldn’t recall seeing her during parts of the 2015 race, suspicions were raised, and forum posters at Slowtwitch.com began to conduct an impromptu forensic investigation, CSI-style. Times were compared, stories swapped, photos enhanced. See presentation of evidence here, and the NYT infographic of the course here.

Despite Miller’s claims of innocence, the evidence presented to Ironman officials caused her to be stripped of several past titles and barred indefinitely from competing in future Ironman events. One could say that in the triathlon world, it looks like it is no longer … (puts on sunglasses) … Miller time. (Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaah)

Two things in particular stand out in the case of Miller. First, she was competing in a sport that does not draw huge crowds and offers few (if any) monetary rewards. Many Ironman competitors probably embody the spirit of amateurism in the etymological sense of the word: they compete for the love of the sport. As triathlete Claire Young put it in the NYT article:

“Most of us are essentially racing against ourselves. There’s no money and no glory. It’s just a hobby, and if you cheat, who are you cheating? You’re only cheating yourself.”

Yet the NYT article suggests that Miller still had an important standard to live up to: her image. Miller, a mental health counselor specializing in body-image disorders, had become a hometown hero in her hometown of Squamish, British Columbia:

“Miller had established herself as a minor celebrity in town, an inspirational, warm, sympathetic woman who could apparently handle it all: work, motherhood, training and high-level sports competition.”

The second thing to note is how cutting the course in a triathlon differs in kind from the sports scandals mentioned at the beginning of this post. The use of illicit equipment or banned substances may give an athlete an unfair advantage, but they still require that the athlete actually compete. Miller’s violation was not gaming or rule-bending for unfair advantage, it was downright failure to complete the designated activity. One might call such conduct beyond the pale, or so reprehensible that it seems difficult to defend in any capacity. Unlike other race to the bottom scenarios that cheating might foster, cutting the course seems less likely to inspire other athletes to act similarly: after all, it was Miller’s competitors who called her out.

With Miller out of future contests, the triathlon world can hopefully return to business as usual, i.e., not on the front of the sports section of the New York Times. But Miller’s case might cause us to stop and ponder why it is that people cheat, and what cheating does to the culture of a sport. Her (bad) example might help us to recognize how the desire to maintain our image (or self-image) may tempt us to bend —or flagrantly flout — the rules of the competitions that we supposedly love.

Confessions of Olympian saboteurs

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I have blogged elsewhere about why I think a contest that does not involve defensive tactics barely qualifies as a sport. Or at any rate, in the aesthetics or connoisseurship of sport, the highest ranking sports are those for which good defensive play and strategy is as satisfying for the spectator as good offense. That’s why most events in the Winter Olympics — ice hockey and curling aside — will never rank highly in my pantheon of great sports. But I digress before I have even started.

When using sports in the service of understanding the ethics of competition in other adversarial realms (law, business, politics, war, etc) it is worth paying attention to the extent to which “defense” is a permissible, or even admirable, feature of the competition. Is it acceptable to try to win by thwarting an opponent’s offensive tactics (the way one does in hockey, American football, or chess)? Or is the competition the kind in which the only permissible winning strategies involve making yourself perform as well as possible (as a sprinter runs as fast as she can, or a pianist competing for a prize plays his heart out, or a law-school applicant presents a dossier with her highest possible grades and test scores, etc)?

Competitions that do not involve “defense” tend to present fewer challenges for adversarial ethics. Competitors can still cheat — by puffing or fabricating their alleged achievements, plagiarizing, bribing judges, using banned performance-enhancing substances (say, cocaine for LSATs). And if such cheating is widespread, or believed by the competitors to be widespread, it is especially problematic in an adversarial realm, because it strongly incentivizes all competitors to cheat. But when there are no opportunities for defensive tactics (a law school applicant has no way to make her rivals look worse — the way a politician, lawyer, or salesperson can), there is less directly adversarial behavior to have to regulate or monitor.

Of course, when competitors find a way to undermine their rivals in a competition that does not permit defensive tactics, that can lead to grave, and often super sleazy, ethical violations. In his seminal paper on this topic, Joe Heath reminds us of the time one figure skater, Tonya Harding, tried to improve her chances for an Olympic medal by having her ex-husband and a hired goon kneecap her main American rival, Nancy Kerrigan, at the US Figure Skating Championships in 1994. There is no playing defense in figure skating. And certainly not that kind. (Harding plead guilty to a felony. The USFSA — figure it out — booted her out for life, citing her “clear disregard for fairness, good sportsmanship and ethical behavior.”)

Teachers who grade on a curve hear similar blood-curdling tales of classmates who hide books in the library, mess up their classmates’ lab experiments, and refuse to cooperate in study groups, so that they can climb over their fellow students and claw their way higher in the curve.

Anyway, all of this is a rather pretentious set-up for a totally low-brow, and misleadingly advertised bit of clickbait from the Onion’s Clickhole entitled

8 Olympic Athletes Tell Us About Their Most Successful Time Sabotaging A Competitor

Put it this way: nobody’s going to jail for any of these revelations. Nobody is going to have to make a living in their post-athletic careers through professional wrestling, celebrity boxing, or selling sex tapes (Harding’s fate). But the concept of “sabotaging a competitor” — especially in adversarial realms that don’t allow any defensive tactics — remains a critical and controversial one in adversarial ethics.

Tonya Harding Defeated By Samantha Browning

MEMPHIS, TN – FEBRUARY 22: Tonya Harding is hit by a right jab from Samantha Browning during their women’s bantamweight bout at The Pyramid on February 22, 2003 in Memphis, Tennessee. Browning won the fight by way of decision after 4 rounds. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Upon Further Review: Ethical Controversies in Campaigning

Post 3: Bernie Sanders’ “Endorsements”

When and why do pundits, candidates, and campaign staffers cry foul during election season? As I mentioned in my introductory post, this section of the blog will serve as a sort of data collection depository for disagreements about what constitutes fair and unfair play in campaign competitions.

The issue:

Bernie Sanders’ campaign was criticized for running misleading ads in the days before the New Hampshire and Iowa primaries. One ad in particular, titled “Endorsed” (see below), contains excerpts from editorials in Nashua Telegraph and The Valley News praising Sanders. While neither newspaper actually endorsed Sanders, the viewer could be forgiven for thinking otherwise (I highly recommend watching the ad—it’s only thirty seconds long and quite cunning).

The accusation:Trump tweetCarroll, the editor of the Nashua Telegraph, called Sanders’ ad “deceptive.” Hillary Clinton’s campaign released a “briefing” outlining Sanders’ alleged habit of using misinformation. Without explicitly accusing him of unethical behavior, one of her ads on Sanders closes with the question, “Why is Bernie Sanders misleading voters?” A Newsweek piece titled “Advocacy Groups Call Foul on Sanders Campaign in Iowa, Nevada,” reports that some have accused the Sanders campaign of “playing dirty.”

The accused’s response:

During a recent debate, Sanders addressed the accusations (sort of). He said, “As I understand it we did not suggest that we had the endorsement of the newspaper. Newspapers who make endorsements also say positive things about other candidates and to the best of knowledge that is what we did. So we never said, that somebody a newspaper endorsed us that did not. What we did say is, blah, blah, blah, blah was said by the newspaper.”

Categorization:

Nobody claimed the ads were illegal. Like the Cruz mailers (a controversy I examined in an earlier post), the ads also don’t appear to be a violation of everyday moral norms. And though technically not false, the ads (especially the “Endorsed” ad) are clearly misleading—something Sanders never explicitly denied. That leaves us with unfair play. While not illegal or an egregious display of personal immorality, critics appear to believe that the Sanders campaign was ‘playing dirty.’

Other relevant information:

Interestingly, few, if any, pundits (that I know of) have questioned Sanders’ personal integrity in the wake of these controversies. In contrast, many attacked Cruz’s personal integrity after his campaign engaged in similar ‘dirty’ tactics.

Michigan’s Harbaugh Rankles SEC Feathers With Spring Practices at Florida High School Recruit Factory

It’s an understatement to say that college football is a competitive game-both on and off the field. For big football schools like Michigan, Alabama, and Georgia, a successful school year includes a conference championship (or better) and plenty of revenue.

Coaches spend inordinate amounts of time and money recruiting top-tier high school players to ensure they can compete at the highest levels year after year. And typically, schools do their best recruiting relatively close to home. This tends to help the programs of the South Eastern Conference that are located in some of the most fertile recruiting grounds in the nation.

The NCAA attempts to regulate college football recruiting to ensure schools do not become disruptive to high school students and to maintain the illusion of a level playing field between big and small schools (guideline & calendar). The period in which Michigan plans to have practices in Florida is considered a “quiet period” for recruiting, meaning coaches can only have face-to-face contact with college-bound recruits on their own college campuses. The NCAA also only regulates the length and frequency of spring practices, not their locations.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh recently sought and received approval from the NCAA and the Big Ten to conduct spring practices at an elite Florida football high school, IMG Academy, in Bradenton, Florida. This is not the first time the school has conducted “satellite” camps, either. Last year Michigan conducted 11 satellite camps in 7 different states.

SEC coaches strongly dislike this trend:

Nick Saban of Alabama:

Jim McElwain of Florida:

Hugh Freeze of Ole Miss:

Brett Bielema of Arkansas:

And Kirby Smart of Georgia:

“(The Wolverines are) obviously trying to gain a competitive advantage, and that’s their right,” said Smart, who took over the UGA program in December and served as Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator at Alabama the previous eight seasons (2008-15). “But I think the NCAA, in due time, will have to step in.”

Jim Harbaugh responded quickly to Kirby Smart’s comments, stating:

The NCAA recruiting rules exist for a reason. Without them, large universities with lots of money would seek even more elaborate ways to woo the talented high school students they wish to sign. The more money and effort pumped into recruiting, the less effective it would become as all other schools sought to do the same. Eventually, all of the major schools would be spending (even more) massive amounts of time and money for arguably little improvement in recruiting (not to mention the growing distraction to the high school students). Professor Joseph Heath labels this type of behavior a race to the bottom: “in which each individual, responding to the actions of the others, generates an outcome that is successively worse, but where each iteration of the interaction only intensifies their incentive to act in the same way.”

The NCAA rules help the big schools overcome a collective action problem. These schools have come to a collective agreement about the rules of recruiting to prevent the very race to the bottom that Harbaugh may reignite.

The SEC commissioner is currently seeking to block Harbaugh’s plans through appeals to the NCAA about college players’ “off-time”; if that effort fails, discussions about changing the SEC prohibitions on these so-called “satellite” camps may soon follow. If Harbaugh wants a recruiting war, I’m sure the SEC football programs would be more than willing and able to outspend him in prime southeastern recruiting territory.

So who is right? The SEC coaches who own a distinct geographic advantage on fertile recruiting ground? Or is it Coach Harbaugh who is most likely realizing improved exposure to key recruits by practicing in “warmer weather?”

Harbaugh may not be breaking the letter of the law, but he is pushing the spirit of it. Being a Georgia football fan who has long supported Georgia’s recently started indoor practice facility construction, I’ll remind the readers that Michigan has one of these:

Athletics, Dave Ablauf

Democracy for a race of Mitch McConnells

Immanuel_Kant_(painted_portrait)Immanuel Kant famously believed that “the problem of organizing a state, however hard it may seem, can be solved even for a race of devils, if only they are intelligent.” These rational devils will realize that they need well designed and enforced laws for their own self-preservation, even though each “is secretly inclined to exempt himself from them.” So they need “to establish a constitution in such a way that, although their private intentions conflict, they check each other, with the result that their public conduct is the same as if they had no such evil intentions.”

In short, in this essay Perpetual Peace, published about 30 years after Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Kant was optimistic that with a well designed constitution, something like an Invisible Hand (and sometimes, surely, a visible foot) could turn opportunistic political behavior into responsible, statesmanlike, governance.

Of course, this is all probably irrelevant for those following the current election cycle in the US. Kant thought that cleverly designed rules for the game could handle greed. But all bets are off if either the devils running for office, or those whose votes they are courting, lack intelligence, understanding, or rationality. So, well, all bets are off then.

A time-traveling Kant would nonetheless be intrigued by the political biography of the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell. At least, if the account developed by Alec MacGillis, author of The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell, tracks the truth. In his recent attempt in The New York Times to explain McConnell’s tactics for the game of selecting and approving the appointment of a new justice to the Supreme Court, MacGillis portrays the Senate majority leader as exactly the kind of intelligent devil Kant had in mind.

The best way to understand Addison Mitchell McConnell Jr. has been to recognize that he is not a conservative ideologue, but rather the epitome of the permanent campaign of Washington: What matters most isn’t so much what you do in office, but if you can win again.

As an aspiring young Republican — first, a Senate and Ford administration staff member and then county executive in Louisville — Mr. McConnell leaned to the moderate wing of his party on abortion rights, civil rights and many other issues. It was only when he ran for statewide office, for the Senate in 1984, that he began to really tack right. Mr. McConnell won by a razor-thin margin in a year when Ronald Reagan handily won Kentucky. The lesson was clear: He needed to move closer to Reagan, which he promptly did upon arriving in Washington.

From that point on, the priority was winning every six years and, once he’d made his way up the ranks of leadership, holding a Republican majority. In 1996, that meant voting for a minimum-wage increase to defuse a potential Democratic talking point in his re-election campaign. In 2006, as George W. Bush wrote in his memoir, it meant asking the president if he could start withdrawing troops from Iraq to improve the Republicans’ chance of keeping the Senate that fall, when Mr. McConnell was set to become its leader.

A year later, it meant ducking out of the intense debate on the Senate floor about immigration reform to avoid making himself vulnerable on the issue. It is no accident that the legislative issue Mr. McConnell has become most identified with, weakening campaign finance regulations, is one that pertains directly to elections.

This is also the best way to understand Mr. McConnell’s staunch opposition to the president: It is less about blocking liberal policy goals than about boosting Republican chances.

MacGillis concedes that McConnell’s tactical obstructionism has been successful on its own terms:

The resistance from Mr. McConnell has had an enormous influence on the shape of Obama’s presidency. It has limited the president’s accomplishments and denied him the mantle of the postpartisan unifier he sought back in 2008.

But the game isn’t over yet, and McGillis wonders whether McConnell has overplayed his hand in the aftermath of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death.

This blog does not really have a dog in that fight. We’re interested more in the concepts and categories we use to think through issues than we are (at least within this blog) in the political conclusions they lead to. My interest in McGillis’s portrait of McConnell is about the viability of Kant’s constitutional optimism. Some deliberately adversarial institutions — like Wimbledon tennis matches, courtroom law, markets without dangerously exploitable market failures — can licence the players to pursue their own interests in a contest with well designed rules and close monitoring for compliance. In these cases those outside “the game” will benefit even if the “players” care only about their own interests.

But can we possibly expect a modern democracy to work well, and justly, if the players vying for, and holding, office are all rational devils? Do the US Constitution and other defining features of the political infrastructure (such as the Federal Election Commission and the 50 different states’ laws for drawing up federal constituencies and voter-eligibility rules) constitute the kinds of rules that will, as Kant put it, convert selfish or evil private intentions into virtuous public conduct?

Even Mitch McConnell (thought not perhaps Francis Underwood) would surely agree that the answer to these questions is No. When this blog ponders politics, it will generally be to explore  “why not?” or “where, then, from here?”

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Redshirting: Holding kids back from kindergarten is bad gamesmanship

This past Sunday, 60 Minutes did a segment on academic redshirting, the practice of holding kindergarten age-eligible children back in order to allow extra time for socioemotional, intellectual, or physical growth. The segment also included an interview with Malcolm Gladwell, who articulated a similar phenomenon in the case of older hockey players in his book Outliers (Gladwell calls the phenomenon “accumulative advantage”). In the many adversarial institutions these parents want their children to excel in (little league sports, elementary academics, and the cafeteria social hierarchy), there is a significant advantage for students who are older. The 60 Minutes segment showed a lot of eager mothers who adamantly claim they were not breaking any rules, but just doing what was best for their children.

Within current confines, those parents are not breaking any official rules. But, there is a sense that eager parents are gaming the system. This sort of gamesmanship also signifies a paradigm shift in extracurricular activities. Little league sports are no longer just for fun—they are institutions that cultivate talent and personalities prone to success. Most interestingly, it also appears that the process of raising children has shifted from a once inherently rewarding practice to an adversarial institution where the benefits of winning are permanent.