In 2017, the Houston Astros brought great pride to the State of Texas by winning the World Series. It was especially satisfying, as a rags-to-riches tale. In 2011, 2012, and 2013, the Astros were the worst team in baseball. By 2015, however, the ‘Stros were in the Major League Baseball (MLB) playoffs, and won it all just two years later.
In 2020, the Astros have brought shame to their fans and their State, because we all just learned that the team cheated in 2017 by using illicit electronic means to steal signs that opposing catchers were flashing to their pitchers. By signaling what pitch was coming, the Astros were able to give their hitters an unfair advantage.
After an investigation, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred suspended Astros’ general manager Jeff Luhnow and field manager A.J. Hinch, and otherwise punished the Astros through fines and lost draft choices. Astros owner Jim Crane then fired Luhnow and Hinch. Joey Cora, an Astros coach in 2017, has been fired from his current job as manager of the Boston Red Sox and at this writing it appears that 2017 Astros player Carlos Beltran may lose his new job as manager of the New York Mets.
As always, our question in this blog is: Why? The Astros have been an absolute powerhouse team. Why did the team cheat? It wasn’t because the players didn’t know the rules. When questioned, the players admitted they knew they were violating MLB rules. We do not know why with certainty, but we can engage in some reasonable speculation. As always, we find plausible explanations in the behavioral ethics literature.
Self-Serving Bias. All things being equal, people will tend to do what is in their perceived best interest. Unsurprisingly, the higher the proportion of a company’s CEO’s compensation depends on the performance of stock price, the more likely that firm is to commit financial fraud. (Harris & Bromiley) Baseball is a very competitive sport and much is at stake– championships, awards, careers, fame, millions of dollars. When the incentive to cheat is high, people who wish to eliminate cheating must be vigilant. The evidence indicates that MLB was trying very hard to eliminate electronic sign-stealing in 2017, but that Astros executives did not do their part. Several sportswriters have criticized MLB for not punishing the players involved in this scandal. Punishing them could change the calculus of other players’ perceived self-interest.
Obedience to Authority. People are wired to be obedient to authority. Experience from wartime tells us that “[t]here is a widespread human willingness to obey even terrible orders.” (Glover) Moreover, people can anticipate what their superiors want and often act to deliver it even in the absence of any specific orders. Manfred’s report concluded: “[B]ecause the Club’s Bench Coach (Cora) was an active participant in the scheme, and the Club’s Manager (Hinch) was aware of the scheme and did nothing to stop it, I recognize that some players may have understood that their conduct was not only condoned by the Club, but encouraged by it.” Although this fraud was player-driven, it might well have been in service of what the players thought management desired.
Slippery Slope. In baseball, it is perfectly fine for an Astro to lace a double to the right field corner and then, while perched on second base, try to decipher the catcher’s signals and relay them to a teammate in the batter’s box. However, using technology (such as a camera placed in center field) to do that same thing is against the rules, as is well known. To the Astros, however, it may have seemed that there was little practical difference between doing what was approved and what was unapproved, so, they might have thought to themselves) how bad could the illicit sign-stealing really be, anyway?
In-group/out-group. Humans have evolved to desire to join groups. (Christakis). We often rationalize and justify wrongdoing by members of our in-group. (Valdesolo & DeSteno) The sign-stealing scheme was player-driven, though it involved Cora and Astros’ video replay employees. Pretty much all of the players and coaches had to know about it, but no one said anything. No one blew the whistle. Because of the in-group/out-group phenomenon, this is unsurprising:
When a whistleblower threatens our group—even if we know on some level that they are morally right in blowing the whistle—our tribal instincts kick in and we circle the wagons against the perceived threat and vilify it with such emotion-laden labels as “Tattletale, Rat Fink, Stool Pigeon, Snitch, Informer, Turncoat, Bigmouth, Canary, Busybody, Fat Mouth, Informer, Squealer, Weasel, Backstabber, Double-Crosser, Agent-Provocateur, Shill, Judas, Quisling, Treasonist, etc.” (Shermer quoting Malmstrom & Mullin)
Conformity bias. People tend to take their cues as to how to act from those around them. It is relatively easier to live up to our moral standards if we are in an organization that strives to do things right; it is much more difficult in an organization which constantly has ethical issues. The Astros have had issues. In 2017, an Astros player who hit a home run in the World Series off pitcher Yu Darvish, made a racist gesture at Darvish, tugging at the sides of his eyes. And an Astros general manager, Brandon Taubman, was fired after the 2019 World Series for his sexist rant toward a female reporter. In his decision, MLB Commissioner Manfred said:
It is clear to me that the culture of the [Astros] baseball operations department, manifesting itself in the way its employees are treated, its relations with other Clubs, and its relations with the media and external stakeholders, has been very problematic. At least in my view, the baseball operations department’s insular culture—one that valued and rewarded results over other considerations, combined with a staff of individuals who often lacked direction or sufficient oversight, led, at least in part, to the Brandon Taubman [misogynistic rant], the Club’s admittedly inappropriate and inaccurate response to that incident, and finally, to an environment that allowed the conduct described in this report to have occurred.
Rationalizations: Selective Social Comparison. One way that people, including ballplayers, give themselves permission to do something they should know is wrong, is to use rationalizations such as selective social comparison, where people make their own behavior look better by comparing it to even worse wrongdoing. In this case, stealing a few signs might have seemed mild when compared to the steroid scandal of a few years ago. Heck, it might seem almost admirable by comparison. Baseball has a history of spitballs and corked bats. It is natural to make these comparisons, as Pete Rose, banned for life from the game for betting on it, opined that what the Astros did was worse than what he did. (Miller)
Human beings, being human, will err. Behavioral ethics explains why good people sometimes mess up, but it does not excuse their errors. And it never will. This is serious stuff. To quote Thomas Boswell:
Cheating or the perception of cheating attacks baseball, or any sport, at its very heart, threatening its viability as an entertainment, as a business or even as an institution that runs back to 1868….It took baseball almost 20 years to learn that lesson during its PED era. To this day, and forever, no one will ever be able to make sense of the game’s record book, now smeared with phony honors. It’s unfixable. If any good whatsoever came from that period, perhaps we saw it Monday. Baseball woke up, investigated and caught its cheaters, even if it meant tarnishing one title and perhaps another. Keep it up.
Thomas Boswell, “Cheating Ruins Everything About Sports. The Astros Got What They Deserved,” Washington Post, Jan. 13, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/mlb/cheating-ruins-everything-about-sports-the-astros-got-what-they-deserved/2020/01/13/ebea7380-3654-11ea-bf30-ad313e4ec754_story.html.
Nicholas A. Christakis, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society (2019).
James Dator, “The Astros Sign-stealing and Cheating Scandal, Explained,” SB Nation, Jan. 13, 2020, https://www.sbnation.com/mlb/2020/1/13/21064250/astros-sign-stealing-suspensions-fines-mlb.
David DeSteno & Piercarlo Valdesolo, “Moral Hypocrisy: Social Groups and the Flexibility of Virtue,” Psychological Science, 18(8), p. 689 (2007).
Mike Downey, “In Astros Cheating Scandal, the Bad Guys Won,” CNN, Jan. 15, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/15/opinions/houston-astros-cheating-scandal-downey/index.html.
Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (2d ed. 2012).
Jared Harris & Philip Bromiley, “Incentives to Cheat: The Influence of Executive Compensation and Firm Performance on Financial Misrepresentation,” Organization Science, 18:3, 350-367.
Gene Laques, “Injured Parties, Defiant Execs and a Tainted Title: Houston Astros’ Sign-stealing Scandal Checks All the Boxes,” USA Today, Jan. 15, 2020, https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/columnist/gabe-lacques/2020/01/15/houston-astros-cheating-scandal-mlb/4465982002/.
Frederick Malmstrom & David Mullin, “Why Whistleblowing Doesn’t Work: Loyalty is a Whole Lot Easier to Enforce than Honesty,” Skeptic, 19, no. 1. 30-34.
Rob Manfred, “Statement of the Commissioner,” January 13, 2020, https://www.crawfishboxes.com/2020/1/13/21064270/mlb-commissioner-rob-manfreds-full-statement-on-the-houston-astros-sign-stealing-investigation.
Randy Miller, “Pete Rose Feels Astros’ Cheating Worse Than His Bets, Questions Players Getting Off ‘Scot-free,” NJ.com, https://www.nj.com/yankees/2020/01/pete-rose-feels-astros-cheating-worse-than-gambling-questions-players-getting-off-scot-free.html.
Michael Powell, “Astros Fire Two, but That Won’t Clean Out Baseball’s Den of Thieves,” New York Times, Jan. 15, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/14/sports/baseball/astros-cheating-scandal.html
Michael Shermer, The Moral Arc (2015).