Sign-stealing discipline should make all professional sports leagues very nervous

Mike Florio

In the first of the three Lord of the Rings movies (don’t call me a nerd because I can quote the films, just call me a nerd because I’m a nerd), Aragorn asks Frodo whether he’s frightened. When Frodo says that he is, Aragorn says, “Not nearly frightened enough.”

That’s how every owner and executive of every American pro sports league should feel amid the news that Major League Baseball has taken strong and decisive action against Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch (pictured) and General Manager Jeff Luhnow in connection with sign stealing. With Red Sox manager Alex Cora reportedly expected to absorb significant punishment for similar misconduct, baseball needs to worry about external governmental entities getting involved. And every sport needs to worry about where involvement from external governmental entities could lead.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred had no choice but to take strong action. The problem is that, in taking strong action, Manfred has essentially waved his arms and shouted to the world, “Hey! We got cheaters over here!” In an age of legalized gambling, that’s the kind of thing that could lead, broadly, to the creation of an independent federal agency with the ability to regulate professional (and collegiate) sporting events. Specifically, one of these scandals could spark a criminal prosecution.

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That’s likely why Manfred’s statement announcing the Astros’ discipline includes the incredible (as in “not credible”) comment that “I am neither in a position to evaluate whether the scheme helped Astros hitters (who were unquestionably a very talented group), nor whether it helped the Astros win any games.” Of course it did; they wouldn’t have done it if it didn’t help, and Hinch and Luhnow wouldn’t have been treated like Leopold and Loeb if the scheme didn’t undermine the integrity of the outcome of games.

Undermining the integrity of the outcome of games takes on far greater importance as more and more American states allow citizens to wager their hard-earned money on those game outcomes. When gambling is illegal in most states, cheating scandals are the equivalent of selling someone oregano and telling them it’s weed. Once what was illegal becomes legalized, the victims of shenanigans have much greater standing to complain, their elected representatives have much greater reason to develop protections against said shenanigans, and law-enforcement agencies have much greater reason to apply existing and new laws that punish those who deliberately try to undermine game outcomes.

Here’s what it means for the NFL, the NBA, the NHL, MLB, and the NCAA: At some point, a given scandal will become the tipping point for a serious and sustained national conversation that becomes the downside to the huge financial upside that comes from the widespread legalization of betting on sporting events. It could be this one, it could be the next one. Each scandal moves the needle a little closer to the inevitable reckoning.

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