We wish it weren’t so, but cheating and sports seem to go hand-in-hand. In a time (summer 2021) when Olympic hopefuls are being disqualified after failing drug tests and baseball is coping with a major scandal involving foreign substances and pitch spin rates, we return to a subject we have blogged about before—the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal that broke in 2020 and forever tarnished the team’s 2017 World Series win. We have also written a case study about it, which you can find here.
Both the blog post and the case study were based on the best information then available, but we return to the topic because we just read the first book-length treatment of the scandal—sports journalist Andy Martino’s Cheated: The Inside Story of the Astros Scandal and a Colorful History of Sign Stealing (2021). The book confirms most of our earlier speculation.
For example, we suggested that incrementalism—the slippery slope—played a role in the Astros’ players decision to cheat, and Martino’s book confirms this. Indeed, it contains a lengthy history of more than a century of sign-stealing in major league baseball (MLB). The Astros did not invent sign-stealing and all teams were practicing it at the time. So, it might not have seemed like a big deal to the Astros players as they took the practice just a little bit further than other teams, but in a way that clearly violated new MLB policies on using technology to effectuate the practice. Martino writes: “What Houston did was the logical extension of more than a century of teams looking for an edge on the fringes of legality. But it was also new and different than anything that came before it.” Because the human mind often fails to detect changes in its environment, the Astros players might not have fully appreciated the wrongfulness of their new innovation.
We also suggested that the conformity bias might have played a role. Lance Armstrong told Oprah Winfrey that he thought everyone riding in the Tour de France was doping and therefore doping “didn’t seem wrong at the time.” Although the Astros in 2017 developed a reputation around MLB for being uniquely aggressive in their sign-stealing, Martino’s book makes it clear that the Astros themselves “had a strong belief that other teams were doing the same sort of thing, though that has never been proven.”
In our previous blog post, we also mentioned obedience to authority and quoted MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s report on the scandal, where he wrote:
[B]ecause the Club’s Bench Coach (Alex Cora) was an active participant in the scheme, and the Club’s Manager (A.J. 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.”
Martino’s book provides evidence that not only did the team’s manager, A.J. Hinch, look the other way when the sign-stealing happened (not because he approved of it but because, says Martino, “he wanted to preserve the largely positive environment, and was conflict-averse to a fault,”), general manager Jeff Luhnow created an environment that fostered the cheating without explicitly calling for it. Luhnow constantly demanded that his employees come up with “fresh and revolutionary ideas” to help develop a competitive edge. One of his executives asked Astros scouts to use cameras to steal signs from the stands. When MLB issued a clarifying policy on sign-stealing, Luhnow did not adequately inform his players of it. And when the Astros were considering signing a player accused of abusive conduct, Luhnow told his scouts that he was asking for their “baseball opinion” not their “moral opinion” regarding the signing. All this adds up to a management-generated atmosphere that Martino’s book indicates played a bigger role in the scandal than our earlier blog post assumed. This is critical, because research shows that nothing has a bigger impact on the ethicality of workers’ choices and actions than the ethical culture of their organization.
Martino’s book is an essential read for baseball geeks and an enlightening read for those interested in behavioral ethics. We recommend it.
Rob Manfred, Statement of the Commissioner, Jan. 13, 2020, at https://www.crawfishboxes.com/2020/1/13/21064270/mlb-commissioner-rob-manfreds-full-statement-on-the-houston-astros-sign-stealing-investigation.
Andy Martino, Cheated: The Inside Story of the Astros Scandal and a Colorful History of Sign Stealing (2021).
Conformity Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/conformity-bias.
Obedience to Authority: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/obedience-to-authority