Last week I heard an interview with former major league baseball player Gabe Kapler. The subject was sign stealing and transferring certain information. He was explaining what was considered okay and what was considered cheating. Not being much of a baseball fan, I didn't completely understand his points. However, one comment has stuck with me. I don't recall the exact words, but I believe I can paraphrase correctly: that to a certain degree such behavior is just considered gamesmanship.
This past weekend Manchester United player Ashley Young, who doesn't have the best reputation for such behavior, was castigated for diving to try to win a penalty kick. Of course, soccer players are infamous for this type of thing. However, United manager David Moyes called out Young publicly and said such things have no place in the game.
This post is not even going to consider both sides of the argument. I'll just come right out and say that I side much more with Moyes than Kapler. As someone who has played highly-competitive soccer and also coached, I understand the drive and pressure which can lead one to seek any advantage. I certain won't claim total innocence, although I can say that my attempts to get away with anything were rare and generally ill conceived. Most of my coaches discouraged it. I've never taught players any of the tricks, let along encouraged use of them. If one of my players did something I found unsporting, I tried to make it a teaching moment.
But I have to say that all this can be a murky area. For example, let's say a ball goes a bit out of bounds off a player's foot as she is dribbling. The assistant referee doesn't see it and fails to raise the flag. I wouldn't call it cheating or even wrong for the player to continue play. The official simply made an error. Let's extend the logic to another common scenario. Two players are chasing a ball. One tugs at another's shirt to gain an advantage and thus he wins the ball. It's one of the things that angers an opponent and is considered bad form by a purist. The referee doesn't see it, so there's no call. Cheating or gamesmanship? Again, I see both sides. Are they really that different from each other?
As an educator, I have a concern, albeit one that doesn't really answer the question. In fact, it's based on another question. Where is the line? Perhaps professional athletes have an understanding of it. They, like Kapler, probably would claim they do. Yet Moyes' comment about his own player suggests not. Maybe I shouldn't equate sign stealing in baseball and diving in soccer. However, the principle remains the same.
In any sport, where is the line?
This question has other implications. We try to teach children fair play, but they see professionals trying to get away with things. Try explaining gamesmanship to a ten-year-old sometime.Plus I wonder how this can disorient one's moral compass point. By that, I mean that for certain individuals the line can shift rather easily. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that the same perspective which justifies rule-breaking, per either the spirit or the letter of the law, could lead to using other means to gain an advantage, such as performance-enhancing drugs.
I'm not naive enough to think competitive sports ever will be free of such misbehavior. The darker side of human nature can come out in competition, and I've spent enough time with elite athletes to know they will do just about anything to gain an edge. And I like to win at whatever I'm doing. But I also know all the wonderful lessons that I learned through athletics. Those are what we need to stress with our developing athletes more than anything else. Therein lies the real victory.