Thursday, March 12, 2020

UEFA's Strong Response to Cheating Emphasizes MLB's Incompetence

The public recently learned The Disgraceful Secret of the Astros' and Red Sox' Success: Cheating, and we also saw Major League Baseball (MLB) Commissioner Rob Manfred set the price that an MLB owner must be willing to pay for cheating to win a World Series title: $5 million. Manfred made it clear that if a team cheats to win the World Series then that team keeps the title and "the piece of metal" (as he dismissively referred to the trophy awarded to his sport's champion). How many MLB owners would pay $5 million to win a World Series title?

Fortunately, not every sport responds so casually to cheating. In Foul Balls and Red Cards: How Baseball and Soccer’s Different Approaches to Cheating Illustrate the Power of Organizational Response, authors Reid Whitten and J. Scott Maberry (both from the law firm SheppardMullin) contrast the punishment that MLB prescribed for the Houston Astros with how UEFA (the governing body of European soccer) dealt with cheating committed by Manchester City, one of the English Premier League's top teams (footnotes omitted):
In both cases, the team's cheating threatened the integrity of the whole sport. In both cases, the integrity of the sport is critical to the business model of the respective leagues. If fans begin to think one side has been allowed an unfair advantage, they will quickly lose faith in the competitive nature of the sport. Fans would then, slowly but surely, lose interest in spending money to support their teams.

For those reasons, in both cases, the governing leagues needed to respond quickly and decisively to reassure fans that the games are fair and to restore the integrity of their respective organizations. Where soccer succeeded in doing so, baseball has failed.

The highest prize in European soccer is the UEFA Champions League trophy. The Champions League is a season-long competition where the best club teams from countries from Ireland to Russia, from Poland to Portugal play in an international tournament of the champions of the various national systems (Manchester City, for example, is one of the most dominant teams in the English Premier League). It is an honor just to make the Champions League tournament and, when a team wins that tournament, it stakes its claim as the best team in Europe.
Among other violations, the UEFA's investigation of Manchester City found that the team's owner, a billionaire from the United Arab Emirates, funneled his own money to companies who had signed sponsorship agreements with the team, which enabled the team owner to evade limits on spending his own money on the team. The punishment, announced in February, is a two-year ban from playing in the Champions League. No trophies, no mid-week competitions on the world's biggest stage for soccer clubs, no ticket sales, television rights, or website clicks for updates. Done. Two years. You cheated, you're out of the Big Dance...

We predict that the UEFA's approach will help lead to a healing of Manchester City's wounds to European soccer, whereas MLB's response has merely magnified the Astros' threat to baseball.
In MLB's missed opportunity is a lesson for all organizations: sometimes it feels too harsh to punish wrongdoers inside an organization. But when the organization's very integrity is threatened by the cheating, the cheaters have to be dealt with.
When the walls of your house have rotten boards, you need to find the rot and cut it away, not paint it over. Cutting out the rot is difficult and sometimes painful. But it may be just the thing that keeps your house standing.
MLB has been a bad joke for more than a quarter century, dating back at least to the 1994 strike that wiped out the sport's crown jewel event, the World Series. We have also witnessed fake home run records (and, in some cases, inflated pitching statistics) created by PED cheaters, and the 2002 MLB All-Star Game ending in a tie as clueless Commissioner Bud Selig shrugged his shoulders impotently on national TV. MLB's simultaneous embrace of Alex Rodriguez--who should have received a lifetime ban--and ostracism of Pete Rose (even as MLB makes millions of dollars now by partnering with legalized betting operations) is bizarre, though not quite as bizarre as the fact that Selg is in the Baseball Hall of Fame but Rose is not.

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