We Americans are sticklers for the rules. If a rule is broken, the offending party must be reprimanded. We certainly do a lot of that in the US, incarcerating a greater percentage of our population than any other country in the world. Nonetheless, we don’t like to talk about heavy things like that, not directly anyway. So let’s talk about it via our national pastime: baseball.
Baseball is quintessentially American. It evolved from English games such as cricket and rounders; but, like the USA itself, baseball is quite different from its origins. It is not an easy game for an outsider to understand. While it has its written rules, which can be learned, it also has its unwritten rules, which are subject to debate. As a baseball player or manager, you are expected to follow both sets of rules.
Failure to follow the rules results in punishment. And punishments abound in baseball. They exist in the form of retaliations, which occur in response to when a player is hit by a pitch. They also exist in the form of suspensions, ranging from a game or two for spitting or small physical altercations to the multigame suspensions that Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez, among others, have been handed for their role in the Biogenesis scandal to the lifetime ban that Pete Rose is serving for betting on baseball.
These punishments exist (both in the written and unwritten rules), in large part, to deter unwanted actions. Such logic mirrors the logic used to justify the punishments the US justice system hands out to offenders. While punishments in baseball are consistent with the American ethos to punish wrongdoing, we often fail to consider what those punishments achieve and if they are even good for baseball/society in the long term. Let us consider the punishments mentioned above.
Consider an unwritten rule in baseball, that if you plunk one of our players, we can plunk one of your players in retaliation. The punishment may be justified in order deter one team from targeting players on an opposing team. It is necessary, one might argue, to protect star players, whose presence in the lineup can totally alter teams’ strategies. It might be justified simply to prevent head hunting and injury regardless of a given player's abilities. Regardless of its justification, from the point of view of the players and managers, retaliation is indisputably acceptable as it is “part of the game.”
Retaliation works as a sort of a free punishment market up until the point that Major League Baseball starts handing out suspensions (i.e. acts as a regulator). Free market supporters argue that markets are self-regulating, indicating that the market would dictate the appropriate deterrent required to curb unwanted behavior.
But is that how retaliation always works? It might be argued that for the most part, retaliation serves a purpose to delimit conflicts; however, some conflicts nonetheless get out of hand. Since the protocol for retaliation is subject to debate, some “foggy” cases escalate quickly as the parties involved do not accept the retaliation as legitimate. Perhaps it is for that reason that Major League Baseball (MLB) rejects its legitimacy and has chosen to regulate that market with further suspensions. MLB effectively views the punishment market as unable to always regulate itself, which, within baseball at least, has proven to be the case over time.
Let’s move on to suspensions handed down by MLB resulting from dishonesty. First there is the case of Pete Rose, who notoriously gambled on baseball. For his sins, MLB banned Pete Rose from baseball for life on August 24th, 1989. Although he has the right to apply for reinstatement, to date he has not received it. Rose’s punishment was the equivalent, in penal terms, of life with the possibility of parole.
What has Rose’s punishment achieved? Since he was barred from baseball, no one has been punished so severely for betting on baseball. Arguably, then, Rose’s punishment created a deterrent for further players to bet on baseball. Or did it? Though Rose was the 15th person banned for life, he was the first since 1943 (two years after he was born). The vast majority of the players previously banned for life were banned for betting on baseball. So, since 1943, Rose marks the lone serious case punished by MLB.
Every so often the Rose case is brought up by the media, so it is certainly not forgotten. Rose has now admitted to betting on baseball and has been away from it for nearly 25 years. Now several commentators call for Rose’s reinstatement. I echo that sentiment since it is clear that Rose’s punishment certainly served its purpose and no longer does much for anyone. Rose could have been reinstated 10 years ago and it is likely that his punishment would have had a similar deterrent effect.
In fact, any deterrent effect Rose’s punishment had has now been maxed out. While we haven’t had significant gamblers since Rose, we have had our fair share of alleged and convicted cheats such as McGuire, Sosa, Bonds, Palmeiro and the current Biogenesis crew. But as Americans, we are hell bent on punishing, so Rose’s exile continues for little discernible purpose other than to punish him. His life sentence with the possibility of parole is, at present, pointless.
Indeed, what does his continued punishment do for anyone? What happened to the idea of forgiveness? Rose has paid his dues, being deprived contact with the one thing that defined his life for twenty-five years. It is exactly the same attitude that sees convicts in prison for extended periods of time past any utility gained from their sentence either by society or the offender him/herself. It shows that overbearing penalties benefit no one.
Moving on to the current cheating scandal, MLB has taken a decidedly different tack with its punishment. The Biogenesis scandal revolves around a group of players who were linked to the Biogenesis clinic which supplied them with performance enhancing drugs. The suspensions most received were 50 games long, the equivalent suspension for first-time PED offenders. However talk of lifetime bans a-la Pete Rose spread in the media in the days following the suspension of Ryan Braun leading up to the suspension of Alex Rodriguez. In the end, Rodriguez was suspended for 211 games, a decision which he has since appealed. What the scandal forces us to consider is “how is the Biogenesis scandal different for baseball when compared to Pete Rose’s gambling” and what punishments should have been handed down in each case.
Arguably PEDs taint any sport just as much as gambling on the sport, but only if the gambling caused a change in performance or strategies. With that statement one might conclude that those who have been caught cheating with PEDs ought to be punished equally to Pete Rose, since both actions are against the spirit of the game.
So, should the Biogenesis crowd be punished like Pete Rose? In short, the answer is no. The question should be inverted: “Should Pete Rose have been punished like the Biogenesis crowd?” The answer to that question is yes. To draw again the parallel to judicial punishment, we should ask "why are we severely punishing people, when lighter punishments achieve the same outcomes?" Outside of a need to punish people (and the money to be made and power to be gained doing so), I have no idea.
To answer these kinds of questions through baseball, we should consider what makes the MLB’s punishments in the Biogenesis case ok? Nobel Laureate Gary Becker illustrated decades ago that the likelihood of being caught is the single most effective deterrent to an unwanted action. With its successful action against Ryan Braun, Alex Rodriguez and the rest of the Biogenesis crew, MLB has indicated that it better investigates cheating. Its methods are rigorous, unrelenting, and the likelihood of getting caught and punished is quite high. This in itself will be a deterrent to the vast majority of potential offenders, but only if they punishment significantly disrupts their ability to play baseball.
It might be argued that the Biogenesis punishments do not offset what there is to be gained from cheating. Rodriguez provides an atypical case in the Biogenesis scandal, since he has implied that he has been targeted in an effort to not to pay him. Regardless of what happens to Rodriguez, the deterrent effect for most players will be significant.
The deterrent effect is due to MLB showing that it is more or less egalitarian. Minor leaguers and bit players were punished alongside stars. What is clear now, that was not evident previously, is that if you cheat in baseball, MLB will do its best to find out, and is getting better at doing so. The message to all players is that if you are caught, you will be punished and we are getting better at catching you.
Moreover, teams have been hurt by suspensions, losing everyday players. Teams aware of players who cheat may change the language in contracts to protect them from paying when players are suspended and may be less likely to extend cheaters contracts in the first place.
Finally, the punishment does not cease with formal sanction, but also impacts your legacy (see, for example, McGuire’s Hall of Fame results to date), which may operate as a further deterrent for star players in particular.
In short, what MLB is doing now is exactly what it should be doing. It should attempt to identify and punish cheaters as efficiently and accurately as possible. Suspensions long enough to disrupt, but not necessarily end, cheaters' careers send a clear message that MLB is serious. However, there is no need to engage in life-long bans since they, over time, serve little purpose. Given that, it is high time to reinstate Pete Rose.
Beyond baseball, it is time to really think about punishment and ask the question: "what does it do?"