Captain of the New York Yankees, shortstop Derek Jeter, last week feigned that he had been hit by a pitch and was awarded first base. He hammed it up a bit but, as replays clearly demonstrated, he had not been hit. Thus he successfully deceived the umpires and gained a momentary advantage for his team (the Yankees went on to ultimately lose the game).
So what? Well, it seems that some people (I suspect many of them disheartened Red Sox fans...) are calling Jeter a cheater. His actions, they seem to suggest, fall outside the usual and traditional practices of the game. But this is not true. Listen to what life-long baseball people say:
“I cannot understand what the commotion is,” said the Fox baseball broadcaster Tim McCarver, a former major league catcher, as he took stock of the uproar.
“Why question that?” he said of Jeter’s actions. “I can’t believe anyone would say that’s cheating.”
Minnesota Twin's Manager Ron Gardenhire, whose team has lost repeatedly to Jeter’s Yankee's in the post season, agreed.
“You have to be an actor in this game, you have to be,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, but it’s part of the game. Jeter, you could see him staring over there in the video, sly as a cat. It’s just the way it is. Call it what you want to call it, it happens. It’s happened forever.”
As some commentators, along with Gardenhire, have rightly pointed out, deception is a part of virtually all sports (save, perhaps, golf):
Now, about the morality of sport generally and baseball particularly. To begin with, deception is inherent to competition and it is fundamental to games of all types, including hide and seek and chess. (One thing that has gotten buried in the seriousness of the Jeter hoopla is that fooling people can be fun.)
Second, that one player or one team might be interested in putting one over on an opponent is one reason, a big reason, that organized sports have officials — who have no expectation, by the way, that the players are guided by the honor system.
Yes, there is such a thing as good sportsmanship. But occasional deception does not explode the boundaries of sportsmanship.
Thus, baseball, and professional sports more generally, is something close to the strategic conflict that Sunzi presumes, as opposed to the ideal human-ethical contexts that Confucius theorizes.
It is Sunzi who tells us that "all warfare is based on deception" (I.17). Winning the battle, and ultimately the war, matter; and in a ruthlessly instrumental manner, actions are judged in terms of how well they help gain that outcome.
Confucius understands this. He wards us away from engaging in warfare precisely because he knows that it is a context that corrodes ethical standards. In a similar vein he also tells us not to get caught up in competitive sports:
The Master said: "The noble-minded never contend. It's true that archery is a kind of contention. But even then, they bow and yield to each other when stepping up to the range. And when they step down, they toast each other. Even in contention, they retain their nobility. (3.7)
The key here is that gentlemen never contend. They do not get caught up in the winning or losing. For Confucius it is all about maintaining proper behavior in all circumstances. And competitive sports, which by definition require contention, are simply out of bounds.
Confucius shares this dim view of competition with Zhuangzi:
Games of skill and chance begin in a light mood, but they always end up dark and serious. And if things go far enough, it's nothing but guile. Drinking at ceremonies begins orderly enough, but it always ends up wild and chaotic. And if things go far enough, it's nothing but debauchery. All of our human affairs seem to work like this. However sincerely they begin, they end up in vile deceit. And however simply they begin, they grow enormously complex before they're over. (55)
Both Confucius and Zhuangzi (though each in a rather different way) tell us that if we seek to live a good live, we should avoid unnecessary competitive situations. And they would see competitive sports as unnecessary.
To bring this back to Jeter (I have written of some of his Confucian qualities here), if we want to condemn him of some sort of significant moral transgression, then we might want to ask ourselves if competitive sports, which are a breeding ground for deception, ought to be outlawed. Alternatively, if the pleasures of sports are seen as important, and its transgressions relatively inconsequential, then we should not be complaining about a bit of acting by Derek Jeter.
Oh, and by the way: Go Yankees!