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Friday, October 2, 2020

October 2, 2020: Sports Scandals: The Astros

[On September 28th, 1920, four key members of the Chicago White Sox admitted to throwing the 1919 World Series, a pivotal turning point in the unfolding Black Sox scandal. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the Black Sox and four other sports scandals, past and present!]
On one thing that’s definitely different about the first sports scandal of the 2020s, and the fundamental question of what’s next.
In many ways, the epic Houston Astros video-sign stealing-cheating scandal that engulfed Major League Baseball and the sports world in those long-ago days of late 2019 and early 2020 feels quite parallel to the first major Patriots scandal (Spygate) I discussed yesterday. A successful sports franchise was revealed to be using video technology to spy on its opponents, both fans and team officials tried to dismiss the actions as something “everybody does” (and baseball insiders noted that that was partly true but that this particular team had gone far beyond the norm), and substantive, ground-breaking punishments (which were still seen by many as insufficient) were levied against the team and its head coach/manager. Despite the anti-Patriots bias I acknowledged yesterday, I’d be the first to admit that the Astros scandal was orders of magnitude worse than Spygate—not least because there’s definitive evidence it was part of, and almost certainly that it significantly affected, the playoffs and at least one World Series—but I’m just saying, the broad strokes of the scandal itself seem familiar within the last couple decades in sports.
2007 and 2019/2020 aren’t that far apart (even though this year it feels like even 2019 was eons ago), but there’s been at least one hugely prominent societal change over that time: the rise and dominance of social media. Of course such media were around in 2007, but they were far from ubiquitous, and I certainly don’t believe that many professional athletes had social media presences and platforms. Whereas in 2020 virtually every professional athlete does, and in response to the Astros revelations many baseball players used their social media platforms to make far more direct and striking statements about the scandal and its aftermaths than we ever would have seen through official quotes to reporters or press releases or the like. And I would argue that this ability for the public to get far more raw and honest responses from players on social media carried over into things like media interviews, as illustrated by the comments from the man considered baseball’s best player, Mike Trout; it seems unlikely to me that in the pre-social media days the player considered the face of Major League Baseball would have said things as direct as “They cheated” and (even more surprisingly, as a direct critique of the powers that be) “I don’t agree with the punishment.” Cheating in some form will always be around, but social media illustrates how societal changes will affect how such scandals play out.
If 2020 reveals anything, of course, it’s that we all too often can’t imagine or even predict the form such societal changes will take. But while the pandemic and its drastic effects on the 2020 baseball season has overshadowed the aftermath of the Astros scandal, I would argue that there’s a fundamentally similar issue at play: a sense that baseball has gone astray, has lost both the trust and the interest of a significant portion of its potential audience. Major League Baseball isn’t responsible for what has happened to this season, that is, but as with any of us, what it can control is its choices and actions in the aftermath, and the widespread consensus is that so far those choices and actions have further illustrated a sport in serious decline. But as is the case with America, the future is anything but set in stone, so the fundamental question is whether and how baseball (like all of us) can learn from this moment and move forward more successfully. “There’s always next year!” is a pretty important thing to keep in mind, but one for which we have to actively work, now more than ever.
September Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other sports scandals you’d highlight?

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