Hitting The Target: Shades of grey mean cheating isn't a black and white issue

Australia cricket captain Steve Smith was sent home from South Africa for his part in his side’s ball-tampering during the third Test match against the Proteas. Picture by Halden Krog, Associated Press 
Seamus Maloney

SOME time not long after the end of the American Civil War, maybe even a little before that, the game fast becoming “the National Pastime” had something new to deal with.

The curveball had arrived in baseball.

Who actually discovered that if you gripped and delivered the ball a particular way it could drop from a batter’s eyes to his toes as it made its way towards him is a matter of debate, but the curveball caught on.

Initially there was some suspicion, with traditionalists, even at this early stage in the game’s history, decrying the new pitch as an underhand tactic.

The distaste for the curveball was summed up by a Harvard professor, Charles Eliot Norton.

“Well, this year I’m told the team did well because one pitcher had a fine curveball,” he wrote.

“I understand that a curveball is thrown with a deliberate attempt to deceive.

“Surely this is not an ability we should want to foster at Harvard.”

The Australian cricketers may need to find somewhere that offers deception lessons after their ham-fisted attempt at ball tampering during their Test match against South Africa.

Cameron Bancroft was caught on the big screen at Newlands in Cape Town taking a piece of yellow tape out of his pocket before rubbing it on the ball.

Busted, Bancroft shoved the tape down his trousers but the jig was up and after the match Australian captain Steve Smith admitted the plan had been hatched by the team’s “leadership group” who “thought it was a way to get an advantage”.

In other words, cheating.

Good, old fashioned, clear as day cheating. The nation was shamed and ashamed in equal measure as Smith and co became poster boys for sporting chicanery.

But why does one form of cheating invite more scorn than another?

When the British parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee released its report into doping in sport it said Team Sky had “crossed an ethical line” in its use of drugs, deploying them for performance enhancement rather than medical need.

Sky and 2012 Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins – central to these allegations – strongly denied the committee’s accusations.

That line MPs said Sky had crossed was one of Sky’s own drawing and, although its a line they’ve blurred from almost the very beginning of their existence – particularly when it came to employing people “with an association to doping” – it’s not the same as breaking the rules,
as the DCMS committee pointed out.

Still, that didn’t stop the reaction to the report being liberally sprinkled with new and freshly buffed accusations of cheating.

So with all these shades of grey, should we be guided by black and white? All sports have rulebooks which, even if they allow some room for interpretation, lay out what you can and can’t do.

Surely it seems simple enough, then, that breaking the rules is cheating.

Or does it depend which rule you break?

Joe Brolly’s post-match diatribe after Sean Cavanagh hauled down Conor McManus in the 2013 All-Ireland SFC quarter-final has entered GAA lore. As a lesson in hyperbole it’s hard to top, even nearly five years later.

“I want nothing to do with that. I think it’s a disgrace. I think it’s absolutely disgraceful.

“Mickey Harte jumping up and down and cheering and smiling afterwards as if they’ve achieved something good. I’ll tell you what they achieved, they’ve achieved something absolutely rotten...

“It’s not within the rules, you’re not supposed to rugby tackle someone from behind.

“He’s a brilliant footballer but you can forget about Sean Cavanagh as far as he’s a man. What he did there tonight was a total and absolute obscenity.”

Brolly had a point buried in there, and the GAA’s adoption of the black card showed they thought so too, but less than three-quarters-of-an-hour before Brolly went bananas over Cavanagh, he was having a laugh over Martin Penrose hitting Dessie Mone a dig in the mouth.

Also, not within the rules.

A player is running through, trying to engineer a last gasp point to save or win a game and they throw themselves to the ground to win a free. Cheat!

The same player stays on his feet, but takes seven, eight, nine steps before putting the ball over the bar. Cheat?

If not, why not?

Both can be cynical acts, both tick all the boxes for cheating – acting dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage – but only one will get you hauled over the coals in the media, social and otherwise, and it’s not the one that ended with you popping the ball over the bar.

Despite what Charles Eliot Norton thought, any notion that throwing a curveball was a form of cheating quickly disappeared from baseball.

Other sports’ moral compasses have developed over time as well – what was once an acceptable “part of the game” can become taboo, while what used to be considered out of bounds can find itself accepted over time.

It’s not as black and white as a rule book and there will always be those blurred lines and shades of grey – unless it’s a clear as some yellow tape on a big screen.

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