The first piece I ever wrote for the ICAI Blog was a longish rumination on the impact of the Houston Astros cheating scandal and what universities could learn from how it managed (and mismanaged) it. Only a few years have passed and Major League Baseball, America’s pastime and one of the most successful sports industries in the world, is again dealing with another crisis involving the integrity of the game and how it manages cheating.

What is Happening

For my non-sportsy colleagues: the current scandal involves the practice of a pitcher placing a substance on his hands or the baseball to increase traction when he throws the ball. By doing so, he is able to spin the ball at a much higher rate of rotation as he pitches it.  The increased rotation gives the pitcher maximum control and increases his ability to make the ball “break” before reaching the batter.

If you’ve never seen this happen to a ball, it’s a truly amazing thing to behold. The ball breaks, it moves in unpredictable ways (from the batter’s perspective), it appears to rise when it should be falling. Simply put, it makes the ball move in ways it really shouldn’t. Or, at least, it moves in ways batters haven’t seen before.

The substances being used run the gamut from homemade recipes (usually a mixture of sunscreen and rosin- the material batters use to help them grip the bat safely) to more advanced substances (such as Spider-tack).

These doctored pitches have become nearly unhittable. Sports Illustrated, in a recent article on the issue, lamented that “never in the history of Major League Baseball has it been so hard to hit the ball.” Offense is down, strikeouts are way up. Fans are bored. The sport and its industry are in peril.

Why it Matters

All of this is happening because of cheating.

MLB has rules on substances on baseballs it has never really enforced, and there’s the rub (if you’ll forgive the pun).  There is a long history of semi-sanctioned cheating in this sport. It is a sport often governed by tradition and unwritten rules. That old reality is now clashing with twenty-first century analytics, science, and, frankly, high-definition television. In other words, at the same time that the cheating is getting worse, viewers are becoming more aware of it. At the same time, a problem that existed in a subdued state only a few years ago, exploded this year.

This is where I found the parallels with higher ed, and how we managed cheating pre-pandemic so similar. MLB’s newest cheating problem and how they’ve managed it provide some helpful takeaways for us, if we’re watching closely.

  • Like baseball, universities are sites of tradition and culture. Like baseball, universities are now having to think about what they’ve done (or failed to do) to create a culture of integrity and support behavior that follows their espoused values and governing norms. Having rules on the books is important, but as the last year has shown, universities can’t sanction their way out of this problem. Those of us who have been talking about building cultures of integrity should recognize immediately that this is probably the most receptive academic leaders have ever been to efforts to build a university-wide culture of integrity. Never let a good crisis go to waste, goes the old saying.
  • Problems poorly addressed in the past can become crises today. Simply put, the conditions coalesced to bring us the cheating crisis destroying baseball today. It wasn’t just the use of foreign substances. It was foreign substances + a lighter baseball + institutionalized analytics in each ballclub enabling and enhancing the behavior + batters coming off a pandemic-shortened season. The same can be said for last year’s rise in rampant cheating. Behavior that we struggled to contain pre-pandemic, exploded post-pandemic because of a confluence of conditions. This is an argument against institutional complacency and tolerance of those behaviors. I don’t know how, but we need to find some way of communicating the peril to those in positions of power before issues become crises.
  • It exposes a clash of cultures. One of the saddest things I’ve witnessed since MLB issued new guidance for how they would address this issue is the parade of old ballplayers, columnists, and broadcasters lamenting the loss of some great tradition. Or, they trot out the “why now?” or the “You’ve gone too far” arguments. It’s odd to see some actively arguing for cheating. However, people feel ownership of the weirdest things: sports, universities, you name it. When it comes to higher ed, we want students, parents, and alumni to feel invested in the university, but we need to be aware that change is often met with pushback because it upsets people’s feelings of ownership. Baseball needs to change. Some will find it hard to accept that. Universities, and their cultures of integrity, will also need to change. That will rub someone, probably someone with money, the wrong way. Academic leaders need to be prepared and empowered to have difficult conversations about what they’re trying to build and why.

Sunday, as I was writing a draft of this post, a pitcher for the Seattle Mariners was ejected from a ballgame under suspicion of using a foriegn substance. His glove was taken for examination and if it's found to have a foreign substance on it, the pitcher will face a suspension under the MLB’s new rules guidance. It’s a good start. Every summer I coach my son’s youth baseball team. Every year, the players look for any advantage they can find to hit better, throw more accurately, and run faster. When they hear about a professional (a big leaguer!) being held accountable for his actions, it reminds them that there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed between cheating and personal improvement through learning, practice, and growth. They learn that games must be fair to be worth playing.