If a student cheats at the University of St Andrews, be it via plagiarism or academic misconduct, the punishment is clear and systematic. Sanctions are in place to ensure that all students are playing by the same rules, thus meaning no one has an unfair advantage.
All sport requires the exact same level of oversight. In a market valued at almost $500 billion, fans expect that all the teams and individuals taking part are doing so honestly and in good faith, and when it is found that they are not, they expect efficient and proportional punishment.
In the Olympics, the punishment for cheating is immediate and severe, with athletes stripped of their medals and banned from future competition for a certain period of time. Their achievements are retroactively expunged.
In July 2019, British javelin thrower Goldie Sayers received her bronze medal for the 2008 women’s javelin throw 11 years after the event took place, with fellow competitor Mariya Abakumova disqualified after she later tested positive for turinabol, an anabolic steroid.
This removal of previous titles is not unique to athletics. In 2006, Italian side Juventus were stripped of their 2004-05 title and relegated to Serie B for their role in the Calciopoli scandal, where numerous Italian sides had conspired to pick favourable referees, while Australian National Rugby League side Melbourne Storm were stripped of their 2007 and 2009 Premierships after they were found to be in breach of salary cap regulations.
Thus, when Rob Manfred handed out his punishment for the Houston Astros’ systematic cheating from 2017 to 2019, a time period in which they reached two World Series and won one, many fans were left bemused. Let’s be very clear, the Astros cheated. They won because they cheated. Strategically placed cameras in the Astros home ground stole signs from the opposing team’s catchers, which would then be communicated to their hitters through the high tech medium of smacking a bin with a bat. This knowledge of what type of pitch would be coming next gave Astros hitters an invaluable advantage, and helped them surge from a mediocre 84–78 season in 2016, to a fantastic 101–61 in 2017, a year which culminated in a 4–3 World Series win against the LA Dodgers.
The consequence of this scandalous act of cheating, the full extent of which was only revealed in 2019, was one of the heaviest punishments in MLB history. Executive Jeff Luhnow and team manager AJ Hinch were suspended for the 2020 season, while the team was stripped of four draft picks and fined $5 million. This was not nearly punishment enough.
Yes, this penalty will still handicap the Astros of the future. The loss of draft picks will hamper their development and future roster, and a talented manager such as AJ Hinch will be hard to replace, but a fine of $5 million is a paltry sum compared to the $1.7 billion at which the franchise is valued. Ticket and shirt sales alone from their three deep postseason runs will most likely cover the fine issued by Rob Manfred. If the price of a World Series ring is a few draft picks and $5 million, then that’s a price many teams will surely be happy to pay.
Furthermore, the very players who allegedly concocted, carried out, and benefitted from this scheme all escaped punishment. In fact, rather than punishing those who actually cheated, the MLB sanctions serve only to punish potential future stars who will now fail to be drafted.
This is reflective of baseball’s failure to deal with the achievements and statistics of its teams and players who have cheated. Barry Bonds currently holds the career home run record, hitting an astonishing 762 home runs in his career. A career buoyed by his rampant steroid usage, which allowed him to beat the 755 home runs hit by Hank Aaron. While Bonds might miss out on the hall of fame as a result, his and many others illicitly gained statistics remain on the books, preventing clean players such as Hank Aaron from experiencing the true glory of their success.
In 2004-05 Juventus played some incredible football, losing only four games and beating a star-studded AC Milan, featuring players such as Kaká and Pirlo. Yet their punishment sent them down a division, and it would be seven years before Juventus would again reclaim the Scudetto. If you look up a list of Serie A winners, you’ll find a beautiful ‘not awarded’ for the 2004-05 season. Yet, if you search for a list of World Series champions, you’ll still find the Houston Astros labelled.
The Houston Astros played by a different set of rules for three years, reached the pinnacle of world baseball twice, and won it once. Manfred had the chance to properly castigate them for their cheat to win mentality, and failed to do so. What’s to stop another team attempting to emulate the Astros’ success?