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Ethics and Religion Talk: Is stealing signs in baseball unethical?

A baseball ethics question: Is it morally wrong for a team to steal the other team's signs?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at http://topics.mlive.com/tag/ethics-and-religion-talk/. More recent columns can be found on TheRapidian.org by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

"Jason" asks a baseball ethics question: Is it morally wrong for a team to steal the other team's signs?

R. Scot Miller, who writes from an Anabaptist and Quaker Christian perspective, responds:

“I find it difficult to accept that baseball “ethics” might be different from “religious ethics.” I suggest that the “business ethics” of professional teams and league monopolies, tax-payer funded stadiums, and the cultural confusion of priorities are more in line with how religious folks out to consider whether to even attend professional sporting events.

“That being said, as a former player and continuing fan of the Detroit Tigers, sign stealing is in fact not a matter of morality at all, but rather whether such behaviors are gamesmanship or cheating. I believe that players with a talent for stealing signs is an asset to a team. Trusting fans or persons seated in the stadium might be a different questions altogether. As far as sign stealing and gamesmanship – keep changing signs, keep throwing inside when necessary, and don’t point fingers at those who know how you cheat.

“Religious persons should probably not compete in leagues that stress gamesmanship, encourage cheating or excessive physicality, or gambling; and we should think twice about attaching our identities to teams and sports that violate most of the basic tenets of faithfulness. On the other hand, identifying as a Lions fan may be considered a cross one has to bear.”

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Adjutant Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“For an action to be an objective sin, in the Roman Catholic Church tradition, there are three qualities that MUST be present. The act MUST be a sin, the individual committing the sin MUST know it is a sin, and the act MUST be done willfully knowing the previous two qualities. If one of these three is missing, the act may not be a sin.

“Specifically, is it wrong to steal another team’s signs… stealing is a sin because it is a violation of the seventh commandment of the Decalogue. Does the individual know that theft or stealing is a sin? The individual must know his or her action is sinful. This question regarding motive is essential to answering the three parts that render an act sinful, and the individual’s intent must be determined.

“Were the signs stolen out of maliciousness? If so, then the act is likely immoral? However, if the stealing is done as a prank with the culprit willing to return them after the prank has been played out, well, that might not amount to a sin but may simply be a question of the virtue of prudence.

“One ought to be careful about assessing sin, and always take the three necessary characteristics of sin into consideration, in other words be objective and not subjective about the nature of sin.”

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“When discussing the morality of any move in a sport we first have to look to the official rules. If there is a deliberate infraction it could be said that a player may be guilty of a moral lapse. If a particular move is not covered in the rules then that requires a bit more introspection. In this case I would say that any sign deciphered by the opposing team through natural observation is up for grabs. But using technology to accomplish this crosses the line of ethics and good sportsmanship.”

My response:

“Baseball coaches and players transmit information to each other all the time using signals designed to hide the message from the opposing team. There is no rule in major league baseball against looking at the signs and attempting to decode them. We call this ‘stealing signs’ but it’s not actually stealing - it’s part of the game. If the batter catches a glimpse of the catcher’s signal to the pitcher and hits a home run as a result, that’s a smart batter and a careless catcher. Coaches transmit information to players to try to gain an advantage, and the opposing players try to neutralize the advantage by reading the signs and anticipating the opposition’s behavior.

“It is, however, against the rules of baseball to use electronic means to transmit the ‘stolen’ information to players who might benefit from it. So a man in center field can use binoculars to see and decode the catcher’s signs, and if he were to use large signal flags to send the information to the batter, there would be no violation. A smart catcher would catch on to the stealing and develop a better way to hide or constantly change the signs. However, if the guy in the centerfield bleachers were to use a phone to communicate with the coaches or batter, he would be violated the rules. Baseball, like any game, has rules to ensure fair competition. Violating the rules of the game is an ethical violation.”

This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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