The Ethics Of… Tampering with Balls

Yeah ok, that was childish and this article is actually about a rather serious issue in cricket, but COME ON, MAN! What, we’re all supposed to just ignore that phrasing?

Image result for archer phrasing gif

Alright, alright, being sensible. For those who missed the news, there’s been a bit of a scandal in the cricket world recently – specifically after an Australian player was caught messing with the ball in order to get it to ‘swing’ to his advantage, making it easier for him to bowl out his opponent. Yeah there are a lot of fancy cricket words in there, but the essence is clear: he tried to alter the equipment to give himself an edge. And much like corking a bat in baseball, blood doping in professional cycling, or breaking your opponent’s kneecaps in figure skating, it is both clearly outside the rules and also something far, far worse: a clear and pre-meditated case of cheating.

The cricketer in question was one Cameron Bancroft, and he got caught with his metaphorical pants around his figurative ankles in a big, big way. Bancroft attempted to rough up one side of the ball using a small piece of (bright yellow) sandpaper, during the team’s third Test match against South Africa, on the pitch, in front of at least two umpires and god knows how many cameras. Net result? They’ve got footage of him cheating from three different angles (in slow-motion), followed by shots of him realising he’d been spotted, getting warned by a team mate over walkie-talkie, and then trying to bluff himself out of trouble with the umpires by pulling a completely different-coloured item out his pocket.

It’s friggin’ glorious:

Video of Brancroft incident with 3 different camera angles. Including fellow team players telling him to toss sandpaper over walkie talkie. from r/Cricket

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Needless to say, the reaction by pretty much everyone has been pretty unhappy. Everyone from the media, to the fans, to the International Cricket Council, to the Australian Prime Minister (you’re not fooling anyone, Malcolm) has waded into the topic with damning criticism and calls for punishments, ranging from sackings to quite literal exile. All which is pretty remarkable, at least for an outsider like myself, because I’ve seen sports fans defend players for VASTLY worse actions than this. But it appears that the blatant premeditation involved has made this case special, with virtually no one willing or able to come to the players defence. As one of the several experts I consulted on the topic (because I am woefully out of my element here) put it:

“Australian cricket fans have always defended our players whenever there’s a dispute between teams ie from sledging etc. All cricketers on the weekend I spoke to, barely without exception, all are totally disgusted with what happened and won’t be defending any of them in a hurry next time something happens”

And while the whole mess doesn’t rate all that high in terms of consequence (at least compared to other ethical issues) there is something particularly revolting about such shameless, blatant cheating – even the most serious ethical issues tend to have a bit of grey to them, where you can at least empathise with the motives behind the terrible acts, even if they can in no way be justified. Not so here; this was a calculated and pre-meditated decisions that is somehow even more pathetic because there were no massive stakes on the line.

All of which begs the question: Why did these idiots do it?

Seriously, of all the places to try to run a scam, they chose possibly the worse one imaginable. And while the Aussies weren’t exactly going great up until this point in the match and could definitely have benefitted from an edge, comparing the potential of improving your bowling performance against the (now incredibly real) risk of disgracing your entire team, losing three players to bans, generally turning everyone against you and then losing the match massively anyway, it was never a particularly smart bet to be making.

Not worth it.

Naturally there’s been a lot of discussion and speculation on this already, with suggestions ranging from simple greed, right through to being the incident heralding the end of neoliberalism at the hands of hyper-individualism (yes, seriously, someone analysed this that hard). And of course it’s impossible to say what exactly was going through Bancroft’s head when he and his co-conspirators decided to do this daft crap, since that would require total honesty from people who have quite literally just been caught lying, and would also depend on them being clear on that themselves to start with.

But there is one thing we can say with confidence that contributed to this: they cheated because they thought they could get away with it.

Call that a tautology if you like, but consider what that implies: you have three members of an elite, highly scrutinised team, who, despite knowing there would be serious consequences if they were caught, knowingly decided to break the rules in such a way that it would be utterly clear that they had done so deliberately. It’s one thing for these three to think that they might be able to dodge detection by the umpires and the media on the day, but two things now become crystal clear:

  1. The guilty players were confident none of the team, managers, and coachers surrounding them would find out, and;
  2. At least three players on this team all shared an attitude that this sort of blatant cheating was something they were cool with.

To put it simply, this problem was/is a lot bigger than this specific incident.

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I’ve… I’ve been watching a lot of Archer.

Here’s an idea for you: considering the massive expectations we put on professional sportspeople to win, going so far as to stake our national pride on their performance, isn’t it a little bizarre that we then burden them with shitloads of kinda arbitrary rules?

I mean seriously, we play up these players into celebrities with their entire worth based on their ability to beat the other team, then tell them that they can’t take every possible measure at their disposal to win? Honestly in those conditions it kinda surprising cheating isn’t the norm – and in some sports we’ve seen that it more or less is – professional cycling standing out as the clear example there.

Now you can make all the appeals to ‘the spirit of the game’ and ‘good sportmanship’ all you like, but at the end of the day those things don’t help players get an edge, and so they’re no different than the other rules – barriers in the way to success to be enthusiastically bypassed, so long as you don’t get caught. Maximise your benefit while minimising your losses – standard utilitarian ethics. Sure, the consequences for getting caught are potentially massive, but as this incident shows, the cheating players apparently didn’t think that was likely.

Image result for ball tampering

Now all that may sound terribly cynical, and it definitely is – if everyone in sports took this attitude then these sorts of scandals would be horribly common. As it stands, cheating like this is the exception rather than the rule and most players hold themselves to a much higher standard than the rules being irritations to be ignored whenever possible.

But as Bancroft demonstrates, these exceptions do exist – so what’s the determining factor? Why do some players go bad and others don’t? In a word: culture.

That word often gets treated like some sort of sacred cow, but when you get right down to it, a ‘culture’ is just a set of ideas and practices which a given group of people consider normal. One team embraces hyper-masculine ass-slapping and talking about chicks? That’s its culture. Another rewards loyalty and hierarchy? That’s it’s culture. And another quietly accepts that certain members might take steps to give the team an advantage? Well that’s a culture too. And it has a massive influence on what members of that group think is acceptable, and what they do as a result.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have no doubt that if the three players involved here had stood up during a meeting and declared their intent to cheat, they’d have been told off immediately. Hell, I doubt the three players involved could bring themselves to say it out loud even as they were doing it – it’d all be a bit too hard to ignore then, wouldn’t it? But a culture of tacit acceptance, or even deliberate ignorance will get you same rough result with the added bonus that the rest of the team gets to pretend this all comes as a complete surprise to them, too.

Image result for head in sand

You have no respect for our ways, outlander.

And this right here is exactly why this incident is such a great one from an ethical perspective – because this culture of tacit, passive silence is phenomenally common in every other aspect of life as well. And while it might be easy, enjoyable, and indeed, correct to get outraged at the blatant conduct of the three cricketers on the scaffold today, it’s one hell of a lot harder to recognise that you and me are very likely turning a blind eye to exactly the same sort of blatant bullshit in our own lives. And by so doing, we both allow it to happen, and thus share in the responsibility for its consequences.

The good news is that the solution to this is pretty straight forward. The bad news is that it definitely ain’t easy. Just as it would have been tough for any other member of the Australian team to start asking some challenging questions before this story broke, so too is it a real pain in the arse for any of us to stop ignoring some of the shit going down in the background and start asking why certain stuff is happening. It’s scary, it makes you vulnerable, and it’s pretty much guaranteed to get you some unpleasant attention, but at the end of the day the choice is pretty clear;

Either we put it on the line and hold ourselves to a better standard, or we end up helping unscrupulous guys to tamper with their balls.

Ha. Balls joke.

It’s my blog, bite me.

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2 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Tampering with Balls

  1. At least here in Aotearoa New Zealand the incident knocked Trump off being the top story in news bulletins for a few days. And ever since the their underarm bowling incident when playing NZ a decade or two ago there’s nothing kiwis enjoy more than seeing Aussie sportsmen being knocked down a peg or two 😃

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