By Matthew Kalhofer
Legal claims are currently being brought against the 2017 Houston Astros, a Major League Baseball (“MLB”) team. The 2017 Astros used video surveillance to engage in an unauthorized sign-stealing scheme involving the use of the opposing team’s pitches. The current legal claims involve “unfair business practices, negligence, and intentional interference with contractual and economic relations.” While many of the claims are believed to lack legal muster, this blog post will attempt to recognize the differences and similarities of prior MLB cheating scandals, and how these aspects may play a role regarding the type of enforcement action taken pursuant to the alleged violations, (i.e., the use of video surveillance over a season-long period, in order to serve the teams self-interest, while also illegally compromising the interest of opposing team).
Prior to the national, and even global notoriety, revolving around the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal the 1919 Chicago White Sox had conspired with a group of gamblers “to earn a few extra bucks,” by throwing the World Series game in favor of the other team. While some argue that the White Sox scandal involved more deceitful conduct, and even rose to the level of criminal liability, there are three glaring reasons as to why the Astros misconduct may rise above the level associated with that of the 1919 Chicago White Sox.
While the 1919 Chicago White Sox and the 2017 Houston Astros scandals both jeopardized the integrity of the MLB, the Astros (1) intentionally compromised the opposing team’s opportunity to fair and transparent competition, and (2) also ensured that they obtained a competitive edge over the other team. Due to the second factor being absent from the 1919 White Sox scandal, this emphasizes the deceptive nature of the 2017 Astros’ sign-stealing scandal.
The second reason why the 2017 Astros’ conduct can be deemed more culpable than that of the 1919 Chicago White Sox, is due to the fact that the Astros implemented a highly technical sign-stealing procedure that involved video surveillance of the opposing teams’ pitching signals. After the video evidence, the opposing team’s pitcher obtained, this signal was then transmitted to the Astros batter prior to the pitch being thrown. This level of deceit, and the efforts taken to accomplish this, involved “a camera fixated on the catcher’s signs, a monitor with a live feed in the tunnel between the dugout and the clubhouse, and by banging nearby garbage cans to relay the signs to the hitter.” In contrast, the 1919 White Sox simply decided not to play their best, which is certainly no skin off the opposing team’s back.
The third reason why this misconduct rises above the level of that involved with the 1919 White Sox (which involved a grand jury and proceeded to trial), is due to the fact that the Astros players were provided immunity by the MLB in order to help further their investigation. In comparison, “Shoeless Joe Jackson,” the most valuable player on the 1919 White Sox, was implicated for his involvement in the gambling scheme. Now you may be thinking, the Astros players never bet on the games that they played in, nor received any excess financial incentive at the expense of opposing players….this would be a misconception.
MLB athletes, in addition to athletes in all major professional sports in the United States, devise their contracts based on their expected annual salary. Nearly every contract involves monetary incentives which provide a bonus for the exceptional performance achieved by a particular athlete. In today’s modern game, the incentives associated with appearing in a professional sport’s all-star game, or participating in a professional sports championship, can exceed compensation of more than $500,000. But what about the amount that could have been obtained by a particular player who was one homerun, run-batted-in, or hit, away from receiving an incentive, which could amount to millions of dollars for high caliber players. These multi-million dollar considerations were not at stake in 1919.
Due to the complexity of the scheme, the type of technology used, and the expansive impact that this conduct had on other MLB players—and more importantly, the player’s families who depend on their livelihood—signifies a need for far more equitable penalties that accord with those imposed on 1919 Chicago White Sox; whether that be accomplished by legal liability, monetary penalties, or unjust enrichment. It seems as though the most logical and effective mechanism would be to impose penalties sufficient to make an example of the Astros or any other team that engages in this type of deceitful conduct.
While many could blame the individual players, coaches, or management, it is clear that picking out any one of these potential participants would not deter the deceptive conduct as a whole. Considering the widespread use of video surveillance and other forms of communicative technology, the consensus remedy would be to penalize the organization as a whole. For example, other sports organizations involved in European soccer have implemented certain mechanisms for cheating, such as taking away participation in free agency. Similarly, forbidding participation in free agency and revoking potential draft selections can serve as a deterrent measure that should be more aggressively employed by the MLB. Although this may penalize the entire fanbase for the misconduct of the team they represent, it is important to understand, as ESPN points out, “if history tells us anything about those who work in baseball, it’s that they will never stop looking for an edge.” Without penalties sufficient to deter this type of conduct from the outset—seeing as this deceptive conduct can be achieved in a number of ways in light of advancement in technological communication—teams will continue to attempt to circumvent the rules unless there is a mechanism that excessively outweighs the benefits of engaging in such a scheme.
Student Bio: Matthew Kalhofer is a second-year law student at Suffolk University Law School. He currently serves as a staff member on the Journal of High Technology Law. Matthew received his Bachelor of the Arts in Political Science from The University of Rhode Island.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are the views of the author alone and do not represent the views of JHTL or Suffolk University Law School.