What We Can Learn from Baseball’s Sudden Integrity Crisis

Topics: Blog, News

Professional baseball, the nation’s cherished pastime, is- right now, today- in the midst of an integrity crisis. For those of us who work to promote integrity in our classrooms and institutions, the parallels are unmistakable. We can learn a lot by watching it all unfold. 

First, let’s talk about what happened. The MLB recently concluded that the Houston Astros used a camera positioned in centerfield for the purposes of stealing the hand signals that opposing team’s catchers use to tell their pitchers what to pitch. When that feed was relayed to the dugout area, players were alerted when certain types of pitches were coming (usually anything other than a fastball). In a sport where it is estimated that a batter has mere milliseconds to decide whether or not to swing, knowing what pitch is coming is a tremendous advantage. 

Put simply: it’s like walking into an exam knowing which questions will be on the test. 

Baseball, sadly, has had a history of managing cheating scandals: from the infamous Black Sox scandal from a century ago to more recent scandals involving how teams are allowed to recruit and pay promising prospects from other parts of the world. However, what sets this scandal apart is its simplicity. 

Almost immediately, the comparisons to our work emerged. First, I couldn’t help but notice that the news broke in the familiar, predictable manner that characterize our cheating scandals. An allegation was made, some react with dismay over violated values, others call for swift and severe punishment while some (including those involved) minimize, excuse, and enable. Of course, it was predictable that once the findings were published, others came forward to share new, even more damning information. So what can we learn from this scandal?

Lesson #1 – Baseball needed to do a better job of listening and so should we. As the story unfolded, there were many former and current players, managers, and executives who said that they knew the behavior was happening. Some even said that they had complained to MLB about other organizations, but had been ignored or didn’t know how the institution handled those complaints. In other words, many with direct experience in the game saw it happening and some even tried to get authorities to address it. How familiar does this sound? How often have we heard chatter across campus that cheating is happening, but are slow to react because of a lack of direct evidence? What the Astros scandal illustrates is the damage that can happen when institutions take a heavily reactive approach OR don’t communicate what they’ve done when complaints or concerns are shared. The eruption of more information, accounts, and concerns that happened after MLB published its report shows how vital communication (and maintaining avenues for that communication) is to enforcing an ethical standard and sustaining a culture of integrity to any organization. 

Lesson #2 – The scandal illustrates how dependent our institutions STILL are on the integrity of one individual.  I mean this in multiple senses. First, the whistleblower in this case was Mike Fiers, a current pitcher for the Oakland A’s who had played for the Astros in 2017. Despite the fact that many in baseball believed that something was awry, those who didn’t have direct evidence were frustrated and those with direct evidence were silent. In addition, one of the consistent responses among those involved has been that, while they felt in a vague sense that what they were doing was wrong, in the atmosphere of competition, they were able to justify their actions. It’s troubling to consider how long this might have continued had it not been for Friers speaking out. 

Second, it took someone outside of the institution, journalists Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich, to call out the behavior, to say it was wrong, to provide the evidence they had, and remind MLB of its own standards before anything happened. Sometimes, sadly, it takes someone with a clear vision of that ethical standard to put a voice to it. Something about that clarity snaps those involved out of the frame they’ve been using to justify the behavior. This reminded me so much of a recent case involving a graduate program at our university. As I talked with the program director, I was struck by the clarity with which she articulated their ethical standards and it was clear to me that whatever justifications the students had concocted in their group to minimize their behavior, the line she was drawing between what was acceptable and unacceptable in their profession made it clear that they had gone too far. That clarity made everything that came after (a lot of difficult conversations and accountability) easier. 

Lesson #3 – We have to do a better job of calling out the predictable equivocation, minimization, and excuse-making that occurs when accountability happens. One of the most troubling aspects of the scandal, both as a fan of the sport and as someone who holds a belief in the power of language and the importance of communication, was the way that those invested in the teams, the players, and baseball itself tried to explain away the behavior. The responses were depressing if only for their banality. Versions of “everyone cheats,” “this isn’t a big deal,” and “if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying” were and still are being thrown around as responses in the media. We know how damaging these postures can be to the process of a student learning and development, especially for accepting responsibility for their actions and truly learning from them. I was encouraged when, during the week, a prominent sports broadcaster was met with widespread disapproval from colleagues when she stated that the real blame lay with the whistleblower, Fiers, for violating one of baseball’s norms regarding sharing team secrets outside of the clubhouse and naming the Astros publicly. I was encouraged by the insistence of a standard by her peers, not just of acceptable behavior in the sport, but also of a standard for how we talk about these incidents when they occur.  I was encouraged that writers that I have grown to respect have, in the last few days, encouraged others to face difficult truths or hard realizations about the sacred objects of our fanaticism. We can do the same at our institutions. We have known for a long time that the best way to promote academic integrity at universities is for peers to encourage integrity among their peers. We should expect the same of our professional colleagues.

As new tantalizing accusations emerge that shape our understanding of the game we thought we knew, I hope we’ll all spend time reflecting on how quickly confidence and interest in even our most cherished institutions can wither when their integrity comes under question. This isn’t a polemic. Baseball and universities aren’t going anywhere. But if no one values them, will it matter? 

Baseball great Yogi Berra once reportedly said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” I hope we all will do that in the coming days.

About the Author
Joseph F. Brown, Ph.D. is the Director of the Academic Integrity Program at Colorado State University and a faculty member in the CSU Honors Program. Originally an English professor, his published work has appeared in Extrapolation and the Journal of Popular Culture. When he writes publicly, his ideas are his own and should not be construed to be official communication from his employer.
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