clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Uncontrite champions: Why is it easier to cheat in sports than to apologize?

The Houston Astros were so sorry about cheapening the integrity of baseball that two players offered a combined 90 seconds of contrition. 

Houston Astros’ Jose Altuve speaks at a podium during a news conference before the start of the first official spring training baseball practice for the team Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Jeff Roberson, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — The Houston Astros want to move on. Desperately. At Thursday’s half-hour press conference featuring team owner Jim Crane, newly installed manager Dusty Baker, and All-Star infielders Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman, they wanted the big takeaway to be this: The cheating scandal that dominated the MLB offseason is in the past, and people should focus on the future.

But not without a steady stream of “sorry” thrown in, even if it seemed like the only goal was convincing spectators to forget.

“What are you apologizing for?” ESPN’s Marly Rivera asked Crane at the conclusion of the press conference.

“We’re apologizing because we broke the rules,” Crane answered.

Isn’t there more to it, Rivera pressed? Isn’t this about more than a technicality? Isn’t electronic sign stealing against the rules because it gives hitters an unfair advantage by letting them know what type of pitch is coming, thereby unbalancing the psychological tussle between hitter and pitcher at the center of baseball?

“It could possibly do that,” Crane answered. “It could possibly not.”

Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker speaks during a news conference before the start of the first official spring training baseball practice for the team Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Jeff Roberson, Associated Press

Absent from the conversation was any detail about what actually happened, about the report from Major League Baseball’s commissioner that found Astros players orchestrated an electronic sign-stealing scheme during their title-winning 2017 season. Everyone was quick to say sorry, though not for anything in particular, until Crane clarified: The problem here was a rules violation that “could possibly” have given hitters an advantage.

Not “possibly” giving the 2017 Astros an advantage, and “possibly” disrupting the competitive balance of a league where competitive balance is the singular virtue upon which the game is built, thereby breaching — ahem, “possibly” breaching — baseball’s already steroid-battered social contract. No. This was as simple as getting busted on a technicality, like a student suspended for fighting who’s really sorry about breaking the school code and the consequences it brought; not for breaking his classmate’s nose.

Bregman, who didn’t take questions, also offered few details about what actually went wrong.

“I’ve learned from this,” he said after noting he was sorry for “choices made,” offering no hints as to what he’s learned, but making sure to highlight the importance of putting such discomforts behind him. “We as a team are totally focused on moving forward to the 2020 season.”

The problem with apologies like these — especially for something as serious as cheating — is that moving on becomes impossible if the people involved either can’t admit or don’t fully understand what they did wrong. So why would the Astros want to invite further attention to their cheating?

They don’t, of course. But they also don’t know how to apologize — a problem common across corporate domains, and made more understandable by, of all things, the psychology of cheating.

What actually happened?

The 2017 Astros fulfilled a prophecy.

In 2014, Sports Illustrated predicted Houston, after years of awfulness led to a stockpile of high-caliber draft picks, would win the 2017 World Series. After sending a league-leading six players to the 2017 All-Star Game — including three of the American League’s top 5 hitters — they did so, and Altuve picked up the American League MVP Award. That offseason, he also signed a five-year, $151 million contract extension. The Astros, it seemed, were not only successful then, but built for long-term success.

But in November 2019, The Athletic dropped a bombshell. The 2017 Astros, according to former pitcher Mike Fiers and three other sources, had stolen the opposing team’s pitching signs using technology. The scheme was simple: Train the centerfield camera on the opposing catcher’s hand signal, hook up the feed to a monitor near the dugout, and decode. Then (now infamously) alert the hitter by banging on a plastic trash can: Different numbers of bangs corresponded to certain off-speed pitches, while no bangs meant fastball.

It’s difficult to overstate the potential impact of knowing what pitch is coming. Dodgers pitcher Alex Wood opined, “I would rather face a player that was taking steroids than face a player that knew every pitch that was coming,” and the numbers reflected his worries: Houston’s 2017 strikeout rate plummeted “at a level unparalleled in the last 100 years,” per The Athletic.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred launched an investigation, which uncovered widespread knowledge of the scheme. Crane was vindicated, but the team’s players, coaches and general manager were not. The cheating apparently fizzled out sometime during the 2018 season, when players stopped believing it worked.

Since Thursday’s press conference, prominent MLB players like Dodgers star Cody Bellinger — who lost to Houston in the 2017 World Series — and Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer have heaped criticism on the club. Bauer called the Astros hypocrites and cheaters, while Bellinger said Altuve stole the MVP Award, along with the Dodgers’ chance to win a World Series.

What makes people cheat?

When news of Houston’s cheating scandal broke, Jesse Dallery thought about what factors allowed it to flourish. As a psychology professor at the University of Florida specializing in behavior analysis, Dallery works mainly with addictions, and that involves incentives. Understanding why people cheat starts there. And in sports, the main incentive is money.

It’s a simple calculus: The better a player hits, the more he gets paid from his next contract, and the more prolific his career becomes.

“At the core, it’s financial-based,” Dallery said. “But there are definitely other factors at work.”

They include the social pressure exerted in team sports — the prodding to fit in by doing whatever it takes to help the group. The larger cultural context of individual player history and experience can also contribute. And encouragement — or acquiescence — from superiors, as was the case in Houston, helps too. That’s why Crane fired manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow after Manfred suspended them for a year.

“If there’s no authority figure that is monitoring ethical behavior on the team, then there’s sort of a carte blanche from this perspective,” Dallery said.

With no one to police their cheating, players are reinforced by success. And the Astros, who won 101 regular-season games en route to their World Series title, experienced plenty of success. Players have since confessed to knowing their scheme was wrong. Dallery advised caution against taking them at their word.

Admitting guilt, he explained, can itself be a reinforced behavior. Players might feel they can avoid harsher punishments by fessing up. Regardless, guilt is (clearly) not a barrier to unethical behavior. Dallery’s work in addiction is particularly applicable here.

“People are continually doing things they know are wrong — continuing to smoke, continuing to drink alcohol,” he said. “Knowledge alone isn’t a deterrent to behavior. There needs to be other factors.”

In both cheating and addiction, people get snared in what Dallery calls a “contingency trap.” Immediate gratification, like improved batting statistics or a drunken buzz, takes precedence over long-term consequences, even if those stuck in the trap know consequences are likely. Just knowing that smoking cigarettes will drastically elevate your chances of lung cancer is usually not enough to stop people from smoking without extra reinforcement.

“That’s why it’s called a contingency trap,” Dallery said. “Because it’s really hard to get out of.”

What makes apologizing so difficult?

Carefully curated corporate apologies are rarely an overwhelming success and sometimes result in downright embarrassment.

United Airlines took several such bullets in 2017, after footage emerged of security officers dragging a beaten and bloodied passenger off a United flight. Rather than apologize to the customer and to United customers everywhere for assaulting a passenger, CEO Oscar Munoz first apologized for an “overbook situation.” The incident became a substantial part of “The Apology Impulse,” a recent book by publicist Sean O’Meara and psychologist Cary Cooper that explores why apologies have become so frequent and, in many cases, so awful.

Munoz’s worst gaffe came when he tried to make up for his first mistake. “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers,” he said, prompting definitions of “re-accommodate” to manifest on Urban Dictionary, including “viciously beat with hits and kicks, batter until bloody and limp.”

These apologies constituted what O’Meara and Cooper termed a “straw man apology” or “strawpology.” It’s one of six common types of bad apologies they identified. Others include the “jargonpology,” the “fauxpology” and the “quantum superapology,” also known as “Schrodinger’s apology.” Many bad apologies could fall into multiple categories at once, but in the Astros’ case, it seems Crane made the same mistake as Munoz. Rather than apologize for the issue — for tainting the integrity of baseball — he instead built a straw man out of breaking the rules and apologized for that instead.

Is it technically true that the Astros broke the rules? Yes. But apologizing for it — after 23 days to reflect and plan an appropriate response, no less — is reminiscent of another incident described by O’Meara and Cooper. In January 2017, when attempting to land at a clifftop airfield in Turkey, a Pegasus Airlines flight overshot the runway and dove off the cliff, stopping just above the Black Sea. Pegasus Airlines, however, didn’t see this as a terrifying ordeal for passengers suspended on a cliff as jet fuel fumes filled the cabin. Instead, they called it a “runaway excursion incident” — a common aviation term that denotes when a plane leaves the runway when it isn’t supposed to. Is that an adequate understanding of the Pegasus incident?

O’Meara and Cooper compared it to calling Albert Einstein a patent office clerk or saying Paul McCartney is the bass player from Wings. “As statements of fact,” they wrote, “they are accurate. But the omission of context makes them misleading.”

Getting apologies right, they explained, is made difficult by two industries. The first is the legal field. “The prevailing corporate orthodoxy,” they wrote, “is to not say sorry when doing so could be taken as an admission of liability for something really bad.” The other is, broadly, the communications industry — the public relations professionals, crisis management consultants, etc. The people tasked with saving a company’s brand reputation rather than reflecting on why people are upset. “It’s the fault of people like us,” O’Meara and Cooper wrote. “And we are sorry.

“Or rather: ‘We regret that our services did not live up to our usual high standards.’”

To their credit, the Astros didn’t go full corporate apology. They presented no overtures about their organization’s excellence while calling the cheating scandal an “unacceptable stumble by our otherwise excellent, hardworking ballclub.” Crane and players said sorry multiple times. The problem, again, was that they didn’t seem to understand why people were angry. Crane instead played the role of Old West sheriff, saying over and over that this kind of thing won’t happen again “on my watch.”

Sincere apologies, O’Meara and Cooper wrote, “come from a place of mature empathy,” from recognizing humanity’s fallibility and fellow man’s capacity for guilt, reflection and regret. Organizational apologies are rarely, if ever, powered by empathy alone. A company must get something out of an apology to make it worthwhile.

Nevertheless, organizations do have the capacity to show they’ve learned, like after General Motors’ 2014 ignition switch recall scandal that killed 124 people. CEO Mary Barra, rather than show an eagerness to move on, told employees, “I never want to put this behind us.”

The Astros, by wanting nothing more than to move on to the new season, cast doubt on their sincerity, setting themselves up as targets for the foreseeable future — especially with the players getting off punishment-free.

What cheating and apologizing have in common

Another illuminating exchange during Thursday’s press conference occurred when Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein asked Crane why he opted to absolve his players when they did something they knew was wrong. Crane deferred to the commissioner’s report, which held leaders accountable rather than players. Apstein pointed out that the commissioner was moot on the players not because they were innocent, but because holding them accountable would create logistical challenges.

“Assessing discipline of players for this type of conduct is both difficult and impractical,” Manfred wrote, because just about all the players had some level of knowledge or involvement in the scheme, and many of them have since left for other clubs. He decided in September 2017 that such misconduct would be the responsibility of the field manager and general manager, which is why he punished them rather than the players.

So why, Apstein asked, when many of the team’s current top hitters participated in the scheme, are you refusing to do more?

“I’ve done just about everything I can. The commissioner has dealt with the players,” Crane answered, providing no elaboration on how the commissioner dealt with the players. “I stand behind his decision. I’m not trying to hide behind his decision — I agree with his decision. So we’re not going to do anything to the players.”

Trust development scholar Roy Lewicki has identified six elements of adequate apologies: regret, explanation, acknowledgement of responsibility, repentance, offering to repair and seeking forgiveness. By refusing to hold his players — many of whom formed the spine of the 2017 team as much as today’s team — accountable, Crane demolished several of these pillars. Does moving on with no proposed countermeasures other than two firings really acknowledge responsibility? Does telling spectators to move on and forget about a lineup of admitted cheaters show repentance or imply asking for forgiveness? Does letting the players off consequence-free and keeping their World Series title offer to repair the damage?

Perhaps understanding a bad apology starts in the same way as understanding cheating: with incentives. The Astros have little incentive, outside of media pressure and ill will from opposing teams, to satisfy those pillars. Why apologize — which just about everyone acknowledges is a good thing — when not doing so properly lets you keep a World Series title and stock your lineup with players who cheated, yes, but whose talent is also undeniable? Why apologize and mean it when doing so could result in future negative on-field consequences?

It’s the same principle at work with cheating: Why play by the rules when doing so would mean a potentially worse on-field product? The question of why cheating — which just about everyone acknowledges is bad — is so easy and apologizing is so hard, and why Crane insisted on apologizing for nothing more than a rules violation, is answered by consequences.

For the same reason, for the stain this leaves on baseball’s past and future, Crane and the Astros shouldn’t count on observers forgiving, or forgetting.