Category Archives: sports

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

 

 

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.

Are European Soccer Matches Won in Stadiums or in Boardrooms?

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Was it a goal or not? This question will forever cause a stir between English and German soccer fans. (Probably less of a stir for English fans since England were awarded the disputed goal in extra time of the 1966 World Cup final in Wembley Stadium: watch the disputed goal here, read about it here.) But this is not the only thing matter of debate between English and German soccer. Germans often complain that English football is just about money, finding a big sponsor, and less about sports and a fair competition.

Whenever we are talking about professional spectator sports there are always two overlapping competitions in play, so to speak. The one we are watching take place on the fields (court, ice, etc.) between the teams, and the one that goes on in the marketplace between rival businesses. The German complaint, in a nutshell, is that English football is driven too much by the pressures of the marketplace, and not enough by what the English fan’s themselves love to call “England’s game.”

In order to promote the sport over the marketplace, the German Bundesliga invented the “50+1 rule”. It says that clubs are allowed to compete in the Bundesliga only if they hold a majority of their own voting rights (50% + at least 1 additional vote; read more about the rule here.) By this rule the “on-field” sporting interests of a club should be protected from the “marketplace” economic interests of its investors. This way, financiers and businesses will be able to gain control over clubs and professional football teams. The Germans believe that this is exactly what has gone wrong with English football. For example, Manchester United is owned by the US-American business-family, Glazer. (You can read about the differences between English and German football policies in this BBC article from 2013.)

What does that mean for the sport? Is the competition in England and elsewhere unfairly manipulated by investors? Is it unfair that some clubs have wealthier or more generous investors than others? Does the German rule make it impossible for smaller teams to compete with the historic giants of the Bundesliga like Bayern Munich? Perhaps finding an investor is just part of the game if you really want to be able to compete on the field. Such are the dilemmas and paradoxes when two fundamentally different kinds of competitions – sports and markets – overlap so completely.

On gaming the game

A fan-made video highlighting flagrant fouls on Charlotte Hornets guard Jeremy Lin has been going viral in the U.S., Taiwan, and Hong Kong. From a New York Times article on the video, which you can watch for yourself below:

Piecing together clips of Lin being whacked in the face, clotheslined, bleeding, tumbling to the floor — all without ever drawing a flagrant foul — Kuei tried to convey that Lin, an American-born son of immigrants from Taiwan, was the victim of excessive physicality from opponents and insufficient protection from the league and its referees.

[…]

With its bruising simplicity, it revived questions about the fairness and consistency of officiating in the N.B.A. and led to conversations about latent racial biases. 

Fans of Lin, especially among the Asian community, have interpreted the video as evidence that Lin is being treated unfairly because of his race. I haven’t watched enough of the NBA to know whether this is true, though there does seem to be a pattern of referees not calling fouls on Lin in cases that are pretty clear-cut. Moreover, in the Times article, ESPN reporter Tom Haberstroh notes that “the 813 fouls that Lin had drawn over the past three seasons represented the highest total for a guard — and the third highest number for any position — without a flagrant foul, a particularly hard foul that can lead to an ejection.”

The video raises some interesting questions about buck-passing in unfair games. Suppose his race is a factor, due to referees’ explicit or implicit racial bias. Then, suppose opponents know referees won’t call fouls on them if they overstep their boundaries with Lin, so they take advantage of this fact to play more aggressively with him. This form of gaming the system would seem unsportsmanlike in most contexts, but part of professional sports (if not other leagues) is that playing to win is the dominant, and often overriding, motive for players. Playing to win often requires playing the refs. This is as much a part of the game as any official rule-bound move. For example, the practice of diving in professional soccer is the new normal.

In this context, I’m not sure if players would be wrong to shrug their shoulders and say “Blame the system” while clocking Lin in the face. But compare this to the question of individual responsibility for collectively caused racial problems in everyday life. Surely there’d be something seriously wrong there about passing the buck to “the system” when one could just refuse to play by the rules of an unfair game.

NCAA Bans Satellite Football Camps–Stops a Race to the Bottom

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A few weeks back I wrote a post titled: Michigan’s Harbaugh Rankles SEC Feathers With Spring Practices at Florida High School Recruit Factory. There I discussed how Michigan’s plan to hold spring practices (which have since taken place) at a high school in Florida upset many coaches and fans in the South Eastern Conference (SEC).

Today, the NCAA made a ruling on the use of camps. Mitch Sherman at ESPN writes:

The NCAA has shut down satellite camps, effective immediately, with a ruling Friday by the Division I Council that requires FBS programs to conduct all clinics at school facilities or facilities regularly used for practice or competition.

Satellite camps rose to prominence over the past year as several programs, notably Michigan and others from the Big Ten, conducted camps in the South and regions rich in recruiting prospects.

The ruling Friday is effectively a win for the the SEC and ACC, which had banned their coaches from working camps at destinations outside a 50-mile radius from their schools.

It seems that the NCAA has effectively stopped what may have become a race to the bottom (see my previous post). Perhaps it is also time the governing body addresses the geographic advantage in recruiting enjoyed by the SEC.

 

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)

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