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Lessons from College Hoops for MLB

Commentary

A baseball issue drew my attention away from brackets (temporarily, of course) this week. No doubt you’ve heard about the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal. Major League Baseball finally laid down punishments in the form of a one-year suspension for both General Manager Jeff Lunhow and Manager A.J. Hinch (both of whom were subsequently fired), a team fine, and the loss of high picks. Additional sanctions are almost certainly coming for Alex Cora, who was on Hinch’s 2017 coaching staff and who “mutually parted ways” with the Red Sox, just a year after managing the team to a championship. It’s debatable whether these punishments properly fit the crimes, but clearly something had to be done.

The NCAA has its own arsenal of punishments that it can impose on schools, players, coaches and athletics departments for rules violations. In addition to imposing suspensions, the NCAA can do things like vacate titles, as they did to Louisville’s 2013 championship team. They can change the record books to eliminate wins, as they did to Jim Boeheim and Syracuse. They can reduce the number of scholarships for a school, forcing them to fill out the roster with walk-ons. Sanctions can also include postseason bans, which really sting because the conference and national tournaments are revenue generators and a showcase for programs. For many players, it’s also a way to play their way into NBA draft consideration. On coaches specifically, the NCAA can impose a “show cause” penalty, which ensures that any penalties or suspensions imposed on the coach follow that coach to other NCAA jobs, which is a major deterrent to such coaches getting hired during the length of their punishment. The NCAA can also impose its “death penalty,” which bars the target team from playing for a year or two (reserved for the most serious or repeat offenders). There are other possible punishments as well, but these are among the most frequently used.

Could some of these consequences be used by Major League Baseball to discourage future episodes like the one unfolding now? Clearly the “death penalty” is not an option in a professional sport — the Astros are not going to sit out a year. Vacating wins or titles is a hollow punishment. The players and coaches who were there and the fans who rooted for them know those games and titles were won, and the teams they beat were still beaten. Celebrations happened and rings were distributed. But baseball is really attached to its own history, and if the historical record showed “championship vacated” for 2017 and 2018, it would have some meaning, at least to those who care about the sport and their place in its history. If this was as pervasive and team-wide as it’s purported to be, maybe MLB should give this some thought.

The NCAA-style punishment I’d really like to see imposed in MLB and other pro sports is the postseason ban. This could work on teams, coaches, and individual players. If you were a free agent in your prime, would you even consider signing with a team that couldn’t participate in the playoffs for the next year or two? No way. Reputations and careers are made in the playoffs, just like they can be in March Madness. A cheating player or team, in addition to a multi-game suspension, could also be slapped with a postseason ban, and that ban could follow a player even if they change teams (much like the “show cause” penalty follows coaches in the NCAA). This punishment might not bother teams that have no shot at making the playoffs, but it ought to deter teams that harbor playoff hopes, and should discourage players hoping to join better teams in the near term from placing their value at risk by cheating.

So in addition to the punishments given out by MLB, I’d ban the Astros from the postseason for two years, and I’d place similar bans on any players involved in or taking advantage of the scheme. I’d also vacate their title. It’d be cold comfort for the Dodgers, but letting them keep the title feels a lot like letting them get away with cheating. Now about the Patriots…

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