Stealing: Morality and Modern Moral Philosophy

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When Is Stealing Ethical?
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By: David Gebler |
Sept/Oct 2007 -- The week of Sept. 10 brought shocking news to sport-crazed New England. The assistant of Bill Belichick, the super-star head coach of the New England Patriots, was caught videotaping defensive signals of the opposing team, against the rules of the National Football League. In a quick resolution, Belichick and the team were heavily fined and penalized with a loss of draft choices.

Have the "selfless" team-spirited Patriots taken an ethical hit? Should fans no longer look up to Belichick and owner Bob Kraft as role models of the right way to build a sports dynasty? Or is this the moral equivalent of a parking ticket in a sport where competitive intelligence is as vital as a healthy quarterback? Getting an edge over the competition is inherent in sports. Are there instances when stealing signs is OK? Does that apply to other types of unethical conduct? In order to make heads or tails of this issue, let’s explore both the legal and ethical parameters of when it is acceptable to get information about another team and its players. Let's be clear on our terms. Most people, fans as well as players, accept the need for rules. Even if we like to bend the rules, we want the referees to be fair, if for no other reason than we want the other side to follow the rules as well. So being "legal" in sports means following the rules of the sport. What about "ethics?" In sports, as well as in business, what is ethical is not often so clear. We believe in fairness and that one side should not have an unfair advantage over the other. But we also believe in winning, and being aggressive sometimes means pushing the rules to the limit, even if that means sometimes going too far. Balancing fairness and success is hard, but our heroes are those who manage to do both. Part of winning is gathering competitive intelligence by getting clues as to what the other side is about to do. In sports what’s legal and what’s ethical clash confusingly as key values come into conflict. As baseball Hall of Famer Frank Robinson once said, "There's nothing wrong with trying to find an edge. That's smart. That's not cheating." Baseball commentator Greg Couch noted that "sign-stealing was invented the day after signs were accepted into the fabric of the game. There is a saying in baseball that if you aren't cheating, you aren't trying." So if stealing signs is part of the game, and therefore part of the ethos of sport, how do we know when it goes over the line? With regard to stealing information, often the only way to know where the line is drawn is by seeing where the officials have put it. Here are some examples of types of competitive intelligence categorized by whether they are ethical and/or within the rules.  

 | Legal| Against the Rules|
Unethical| What if a coach stumbles upon the other team’s playbook accidentally left in a public space? Should the team scour the book for clues, or is that unsportsmanlike? Retailers have been known to post phony job openings to lure competitors’ employees into interviews in hopes of obtaining competitive information.| What about bringing one’s former team’s playbook to a new position, or bribing coaches to divulge information? Or, if a coach or player continues to violate rules after repeatedly warnings. Actions that are both against the rules and against the ethics of even aggressive sports fans engender Bronx cheers.| Ethical| In sports, trying to steal the pitchers’ signs and the coaches’ signals is part of the game. Teams study films and get as much of a competitive edge as possible. In business, competitive intelligence gained from public sources is expected.| Videotaping signs. If it’s OK to get the signs without technology, why is it unethical to get them with technology? The problem is when the action explicitly violates the rules.| We have a grudging respect for the rules though we are most ambivalent when the rules are perceived to...
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