The MLB Scandal from Left Field

The World Series is just around the corner, so it seems an apt time to revisit, as Sports Illustrated just did, one of baseball’s most intriguing recent scandals.

Here are the facts.  Chris Correa was a computer whiz who loved sports and worked in the scouting department of the St. Louis Cardinals.  Two of his superiors left the Cards to take jobs with the rival Houston Astros.  Correa guessed one of his former colleagues’ passwords and thereby hacked into the Astros’ webmail system, which he accessed at least 46 times over the next few years to steal information, such as the Astros’ scouting reports, draft rankings, and trade discussions.  He took steps to cover up his actions, but he was eventually discovered.  The feds charged Correa five violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.  Correa pled guilty in early 2016 and was sentenced to 46 months in prison and ordered to pay the Astros $279,038 in restitution.  Later, the Major League Baseball Commissioner, Rob Manfred, imposed a lifetime ban on Correa and fined the Cardinals $2 million, though there is no solid evidence that anyone other than Correa was involved in the hacking. At sentencing, Correa signed a document indicating that he had caused $1.7 million worth of losses to the Astros, though that has not kept the Astros from winning the World Series in 2017 and (at this writing) threatening to do so again in 2018.

Question #1:  Why do we see so many scandals in sports?  The answer seems fairly obvious—the stakes are high and the competition is fierce.  It is the same reason we see so many scandals on Wall Street and in politics.  The size of the stakes brings self-interest to the fore and causes people to accept their own rationalizations that they might not find persuasive in other circumstances.

Question #2: What’s Correa’s story?  Well, first, he had a framing problem.  Rather than having legal and ethical considerations in his frame of reference as he made the decision whether to hack the Astros’ computers, he was thinking simply of competition and the need to win.  Correa has said:  “It was all in the context of a game, to me.  I’m not making excuses.  I’m trying to explain where my head was at, as I now understand it.  If another team does something wrong, you retaliate.  That’s the lens through which I mistakenly viewed it, and I used that to give myself permission.  It was wrong.”

Second, Correa had a self-serving bias problem.  Unethical ideas sound more reasonable and rationalizations become more plausible if we benefit from putting those ideas into action.  Correa and his Cardinals definitely benefitted from his hacking, though the Cards have had less success in recent years than the Astros.

Third, Correa accepted his own lame rationalizations.  Although there is no clear evidence of it, Correa believes that his bosses who jumped the Cards’ ship for the Astros took proprietary information that he had developed with them.  In his own mind, that alleged theft justified his own pilfering.  Often times, our rationalizations that sound convincing inside our own heads do not persuade third parties.  This one did not move the sentencing judge who asked: “You broke into their house to find out if they were stealing your stuff?”

At the end of the day, Correa seems to be another good person who did a bad thing and has paid a serious price.  At sentencing, he said that this was “the worst thing I’ve done in my life by far, and I am overwhelmed with remorse and regret.”

Leo Durocher once said: “Winning isn’t everything.  It’s the only thing.”  He also seems to have had a framing problem.  Winning with honor should be the only thing.

 

 

Sources

Associated Press, “Christopher Correa, Former Cardinals Executive, Sentenced to Four Years for Hacking Astros’ Database,” New York Times, July 18, 2016.

Robert Patrick, “Cardinals Hacker Tells judge ‘Scrawny’ Player’s Name was Key to Unlocking Astros’ Data,” St. Louis Post Dispatch, Jan. 24, 2016.

Ben Reiter, “What Happened to the Houston Astros’ Hacker?,” Sports Illustrated, Oct. 4, 2018.

U.S. v. Christopher Correa, Criminal No. H15-679 (S.D.Tex. Dec. 22, 2015) (indictment), available at https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2680399-ChrisCorreaIndictment.html.

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