There may be no crying in baseball, but there’s apparently so much cheating that rule-breaking is just part of the game. That’s the implication of the recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to reject a lawsuit by fans who claimed that their betting results were affected by illegal sign-stealing between 2017 and 2019. And one needn’t be a sports fan to be worried about what stands behind Major League Baseball’s confession that cheating is abundant: the unspoken admission that in sports as elsewhere, the technological arms race is out of control.
The plaintiffs were fans who’d used DraftKings.com to play fantasy baseball, in which users build virtual teams with real players and win points depending on those players’ real-life performance. In particular, plaintiffs claimed to have relied on representations by MLB that games would be fair. But during the years in question, as investigators later found, the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox violated league rules that bar stealing signs via electronic means. These offenses, plaintiffs said, affected player performance, and thus their fantasy teams.
The court wasn’t asked to decide whether cheating really occurred, or whether MLB indeed made such representations, or whether plaintiffs relied on them. The question was whether all of these claims, if proved, would give rise to liability. Nope, said MLB. And the judges agreed:
“[A]ny reasonable spectator or consumer of sports competitions — including participants in fantasy sports contests based upon such sporting events — is undoubtedly aware that cheating is, unfortunately, part of sports and is one of many unknown variables that can affect player performance and statistics on any given day, and over time.”
Once we’ve all taken a breath and recovered from the idea that a professional sports league would offer so distressing a description of its product — and that a court would accept it — we might delve a little more deeply.
Baseball players and coaches use hand signals to communicate wordlessly during games — to reposition fielders, for example, or to instruct a batter not to swing. The “signs” at issue in the scandals of 2017-2019 were the finger movements used by catchers to tell pitchers which pitch to throw and where.
In cryptological terms, the sign must combine two characteristics: It must be easy for the pitcher to decode (because there’s limited time to throw a pitch) but must be concealed from the opposition (because a batter who knows what pitch is coming has a better chance of hitting it).
Once upon a time, concealment was simple; the catcher’s finger movements could not be seen by members of the opposing team, unless there was a runner on second base. Decryption was therefore difficult. But teams tried anyway. The 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers came up with a scheme that could have been devised by Rube Goldberg, involving, among other things, a wire laid beneath the field that set off a buzzer to tell the batter what pitch was coming: one buzz for a fastball, two for a curve.
Nowadays, courtesy of the center field television camera, anybody can watch the catcher’s hands. Teams have responded by complexifying what were once simple finger motions, but it’s evident that the traditional communication schemes are “no longer secure.” Baseball signs convey such valuable information that the incentive to decode them is large; so is the incentive to find stronger means to protect them. What’s unfolding is a classic cryptologic battle — a battle sufficiently complex that it’s attracted the attention of serious computer scientists.
Stealing old-fashioned finger signs has become trivial. There’s even an app for that — seriously. Small wonder, then, that proposals for technological answers are everywhere. This year in spring training, big-league teams are testing a device from a company called PitchCom that allows the catcher to push a button on a wristband to send a signal to a receiver that will in turn tell the pitcher — in English or Spanish — which pitch to throw. (The device has been used already in the low minor leagues.) And, as it happens, at about the time three federal judges declared that cheating in baseball is endemic, the lords of the sport proposed to the players union that the PitchCom technology be available on a voluntary basis once the major league season begins.
Here’s where things get fun. Breaking the encryption on PitchCom’s system is said to be impossible. No doubt legions of hackers will take the claim as a challenge, in keeping with the mantra that every system has flaws. At the same time, critics wonder whether the system, whatever its benefits, might also be used to cheat.
That possibility suggests the folly of seeking a technological solution to an ethical problem. Rules or no rules, in a competition, players will press the boundaries to find an advantage.
Unless no problem exists. Konstantin Kakaes of the MIT Technology Review argues that sports leagues should abandon “spurious constraints” on a team’s use of digital devices to decrypt the opponent’s signals. Instead, writes Kakaes, they should treat technological understanding as just one more skill that can be used to gain a competitive edge.
Viewed that way, the Second Circuit adopted the wrong rhetoric. Perhaps what’s endemic is less cheating than the inevitable disruptive force of technological advance. If so, it’s far too late for professional sports to continue pretending that nothing has changed.
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Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.”
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