Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Philosophy and Cheating in Sports, Pt. 2


I'm sorry for keeping you waiting 5 months since Part 1 of my attempt to make use of my undergraduate education, but here's part 2. Originally I was only going to make it one entry, but found myself delving far too into an explanation of Kantian moral theory. I don't intend to go into quite as much detail on this one, but that's more because I think consequentialist approaches to ethics take less explaining than do normative ones.
I figured now was as good a time as ever to finish writing this. In the tri-geek world, we've got an age grouper who doubles as a urologist specializing in anti-aging getting popped for testosterone supplementation and Spanish female pro Virginia Berastegui testing positive for EPO and confessing to it (hope your Spanish is good or you're using Google Chrome for this link). Like a good multisport athlete, I find single sports a lot more exciting to watch and follow. It also provides more chances to find instances of doping, like 100m runners Tyson Gay (USA), Asafa Powell (Jamaica), and Sherone Simpson (Jamaica). Then, it being July, there's that thing going on in France that's prompting discussions about how Chris Froome, current leader and the all-but-inevitable winner, went from hanging onto a motorcycle to make the time cut to being able to explode away from some of the best cyclists in the world and climb at a rate that would make him very competitive in the heyday of cycling doping, all within about 3 years.
Then there's baseball and its latest in the continuation of the Mitchell Report/BALCO/Murdock/Mark McGwire's locker/Capitol Hill saga: Biogenesis. Despite that, the commissioner of baseball still insists that the game is cleaner than ever. I will give him that people aren't hitting 70 home runs in a season anymore, routinely throwing 100 mph, or throwing a broken bat at a runner because they've taken too many amphetamines....so that's nice. I'll consider buying that one.
Cheating isn't just doping, though, and I intended to write this about cheating, not just doping. It just so happens that doping is a lot sexier than discussions of cutting the run course, NFL-style hidden cameras, or even not touching second base while turning a double play. It's still there, and I still believe in the benefit of looking from a pure, abstract point of view. In combining multiple approaches that have little bias other than the ones inherent to the approach, I think we've got our best chance at figuring out "what do we do with those damn cheaters?"
Instead of the stone-cold absolutes of Kantian approaches to ethics, I'm instead going to explore how a consequentialist, or utilitarian approach. If you took any political theory, international relations, or philosophy courses, there's a good chance that this will sound familiar. The economists in my audience (my brother) will probably read this and say "well of course that's how it ought to be" unless those economists are from somewhere in the Eastern Bloc (not my brother).
Consequentialist thinking focuses on the outcome. That is, the outcome, whether real, expected, or potential, is what ought to drive the moral decision-making process. This seems simple enough, but it leaves out intentions for doing something and a universality that exists in other approaches to ethics. The most common and well-known approach is utilitarianism, which can be summed up by its most basic tenet as the greatest good for the greatest number. I don't know if that's an exact quote and/or where it would come from, but the idea certainly sums up utilitarianism. It means that not only is "benefit" for as many people as possible preferred, but it cannot be a hedonistic sort of benefit. That is, it's all well and great to make sure everybody is fed, but if they're just getting fed, that's not enough. There's a certain tradeoff that ought to take place, which is why utilitarianism lacks that universality.
Let's take the example of hosting a dinner party and inviting coworkers (I use coworkers because this allows you to be slightly more detached and impartial than if I say friends. Let's get past the point that you like to keep your work and social life separate. Hypothetical you has no qualms about this)
Let's say you have three options for "catering" this event: McDonald's, Olive Garden, and Ruth's Chris, but can't spend an unlimited amount of money. I'm not going to put an upper bound on this because ultimately, there is no true upper bound of "utility" or "goodness" or "benefit" in most situations, just an upper bound of the allotment of resources and ways to distribute this utility.
Meals at McDonald's are $5/plate. Meals at Olive Garden are $10/plate. Meals at Ruth's Chris are $20/plate (you're eating parsley and drinking water if you go there for that little. For those unaware, it's an upscale chain steakhouse. While I personally am not a fan of chain restaurants in general, I use them for fairly common comparison here). You want to invite as many people as you can, but you don't want to go broke. At the same time, you want to provide the people with good food. How can we solve this problem? (For the purposes of math, you don't eat. You're a very gracious host who lives only to serve others)
You could invite 5 friends over and do Ruth's Chris. They would all love you, the food would be awesome, the wine would be flowing, the steaks would melt right before them. It would be incredible and they would all LOVE it, but there'd be very few people who were actually happier as a result of the situation. This would net you $100 worth of "benefit"
You could invite 10 friends over and do Olive Garden. The food would be medium quality, but you'd make quite a few people pretty happy by inviting them. This would also net you $100 worth of "benefit."
You could invite 20 friends over and have McDonald's. The food would be kinda crappy, but you'd have 20 new friends to hang out with at the water cooler in the office on Monday morning. This would net you $100 worth of "benefit."
Forget about Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato: this is your Big Three of Philosophy
Sorry, I didn't give you a real answer here, as my examples all portray three different ways to reach a similar level of "benefit" or "utility" of three different ways to handle a situation. For the sake of simplicity, I also removed the possibility of negative repercussions, such as somebody being upset you didn't invite them, or somebody being pissed off that you gave them McDonald's, or there being a vegetarian, for that matter. I don't really want to get into that, because that will inevitably involve me opening up Excel and assigning positive and negative utility values to possible outcomes, but I really don't want to go down that rabbit hole right now.

Now, if, for one reason or another, your only options were 15 friends+McDonald's ($75), 3 friends+Ruth's Chris ($60), or 5 friends+Olive Garden ($50), your best option is McDonald's. It's the lowest form of the benefit, but because it's so well distributed, it gets the best. On the converse, if you could only bring 2 friends over period, regardless of restaurant, then pony up, big guy, because you're buying them Ruth's Chris.
In case you were wondering what situation 3 looked like with 20 plates worth of McDonald's, this is a 'Potato Party,' which is evidently a huge problem throughout Japan and South Korea. I find the whole thing pretty funny, because in 'murrica, when teenagers eat this much fast food, we call it Wednesday, whereas it's some sort of huge outcry from people in East Asia. Different strokes for different...cultures? (No, Ian, that's cultural relativism, and that's not a valid moral theory, which you learned in your sophomore year of college in the same class that forms the whole knowledge basis for this blog post) Nevertheless, imagine how many Monopoly pieces these kids got!!!!!!!!!! They probably still didn't get the Boardwalk, though. You're more likely to find Jimmy Hoffa than you are to find that.
How the hell does this pertain to sports, aside from filling up my bento box with all-you-can-eat breadsticks for my next Ironman to finally nail down that nutrition strategy? Well, the idea is, we have to weigh both the magnitude of the benefit with the distribution of the benefit. In terms of cheating in sports, our biggest perplexity of cheating is just how to enforce rules. We have relatively limited resources to prevent, police, catch, and punish cheaters. It doesn't matter how much money or time you throw at the system, I'm fairly certain we'll never reach an infinite budget of all of these things. So that leaves us with trying to determine how to best allot our imperfect amount of resources. By this definition, this means looking at the magnitude of the impact as well as how widespread that impact will be. Here are some examples of courses to take that, while possible, aren't very realistic. I do this because I don't mean to offer suggestions here, just provide a lens of discussion. These examples are specific to triathlon, but I'll do my best to try to extrapolate them to other sports. It's also semi US-centric. Sorry to the 26 French who viewed my page in the last month according to the stats page.
Option A: A comprehensive education program for all Age Group athletes on their responsibilities for antidoping measures including the Therapeutic Use Exemption process, requiring athletes to sit through a webinar/training before renewing or obtaining a license
Option B: Every USA Triathlon elite (meaning professional) license holder, regardless of distance/discipline enrolled in a biopassport testing program, as well as out-of-competition testing pools for any other drugs not detected by the biopassport. (This sounds great and easy to implement, but is CRAZY expensive and would require significant educational phase-in for especially the newer/younger pros)
Option C: Any athlete in the top 50 of the pro rankings for Ironman or 70.3 and/or in the top 100 of the ITU rankings has to fill out a log of absolutely everything that goes in their body, and will have weekly blood tests that confirm whether their log is true or not, and any disagreement results in a doping sanction. (I don't even know if the biology/chemistry behind this is possible, but let's assume it  is possible to tell whether I ate rice or pasta and whether I took Advil, Tylenol, or stanozolol for my headache, but maybe not. And no, I don't think you'd ever take stanzolol for a headache, but I just watched a documentary on Netflix about Ben Johnson, so that's stuck in my head)

So, you have your three options. Option A assumedly has a very widespread impact (every USAT member), but doesn't necessarily have a very big impact. People probably wouldn't pay too much attention and would leave the screen on while they were doing the dishes. Option B would have a BIG impact on a fairly large group of individuals. Remember, these are the people who are racing for their careers, or at least displacing the people who are racing for their careers, so the impact to any professional of any cheating is multiplied significantly. Option C has a HUUUUGE impact and "benefit" to a very small group of people. If you had to do that, you could probably be as sure as possible that somebody was not doping if they were on that hypothetical program, but not many would receive the benefit.
There's no right answer here again, sorry. Everybody has their own biases, too. If I presented those three options to a panel of professionals, they'd probably say option B or C would be best, if nothing else but for self-interest. Age groupers with little to no connection to the pro fields, however, would choose A.
What this means: enforce the rules as you can have the most significant impact, but on the most number of people (how many times have I reworded that phrase now?) This moral theory advocates a gradual approach, for sure, so a drafting violation on a 4-hour Olympic distance racer doesn't necessarily mean the same thing as it does to a sub-2 hour racer. It absolutely flies in the face of how the rules are written, because the rules inherently have a very principle/Kantian sort of approach, as do most rules/laws/regulations. To some degree, this graduated enforcement already goes on as somewhat common sense. It's why some pros are subject to wherabouts reporting and out-of-competition testing, but I can't think of an instance in which an amateur athlete would be, at least in triathlon. The impact of cheating on pros is HUGE. If somebody cheats them out of prize money or endorsements, they don't eat. To jump around and make a terrible analogy, it's why the Securities and Exchanges Commission probably doesn't look at my pitiful attempts at stock trading as much as it looks at those of Goldman Sachs (if they did, they might feel bad for me and throw me a piece or two of advice). Goldman Sachs has more to gain from cheating than I do, and their cheating also screws over other firms much more than mine. They're also probably more likely to cheat than I am, based strictly on circumstances (I'm not saying at all that they do). Similarly, the more competitive athletes probably have more to gain, so they would be considered more at risk to cheat and the impact of their cheating would be greater.
Now, I am not advocating a complete ignoring of the back of the field by officials, or a complete relaxation of enforcement of the rules on amateurs. I'm not advocating anything, in fact. I'm just trying to explain a potential moral theory through which we can try to view this issue. There is no silver bullet, no panacea to come rescue us athletes from ourselves...but we can always try.
Prior to my Google image searching for "McDonald's feast" and discovering the phenomenon of the "potato party," this is what I would have expected a potato party to be....thanks, deviantART's TwasRena for confirming my belief.

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