Schoolchildren used to learn that cheaters never win and winners never cheat.
But that familiar playground lesson may no longer apply in a modern sports landscape where breaking the rules is often the quickest way to the top.
The Houston Astros fired manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow on Monday after Major League Baseball handed them one-year suspensions over the team’s use of a camera system to steal signs from opposing pitchers during two seasons, including their World Series winning season in 2017.
The Astros join a growing roster of championship teams, high-profile coaches and big-name college programs embroiled in scandal recently as the pressure to win ramps up while technology makes cutting ethical corners easier.
Shawn Klein, a philosophy lecturer at Arizona State University who runs the blog The Sports Ethicist, said there always have been rule-breakers and always will be, but keeping up with the new ways to cheat is a challenge.
“These things are extraordinarily hard to enforce, to catch in the process, that this just requires the leagues to be involved in policing this sort of surveillance,” Mr. Klein said. “Whether it’s sign-stealing or cameras in different parts of the stadium, it seems to require a lot on the part of the leagues.”
He compared it to keeping up with the ways athletes dope, another well-documented area of cheating in sports. There is a key difference, though, between athletes using performance-enhancing drugs and an “organized, institutional effort,” Mr. Klein said. He noted that no Astros players were punished by MLB.
“When you start looking at the team as a whole, that raises the concern of the collective responsibility that might be carried over to people who really didn’t want to be a part of it but didn’t have many other good options other than leaving the team altogether.”
The Astros’ camera-based scheme mirrored the New England Patriots’ “Spygate” in the NFL.
In 2007, the Patriots were docked a 2008 first-round pick and fined $250,000 for filming an opposing team’s defensive hand signals on the sideline. Patriots coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 — the maximum amount allowed under the NFL’s bylaws.
The matter, in which the Patriots filmed at least 40 games over seven years, was uncovered when the New York Jets alerted NFL security of a Patriots video assistant filming their coaches from the sideline in September 2007. Days later, Belichick apologized to “everyone affected” by the incident.
Some weren’t satisfied with that apology. The Patriots came under fire again when the NFL opened an investigation into whether quarterback Tom Brady had ordered the deflation of footballs in the AFC Championship game in 2015 against the Indianapolis Colts.
Brady denied any wrongdoing but was suspended the first four games of the 2016 season. The Patriots were fined $1 million and lost another first-round draft pick.
Last month, NFL security confiscated video from a Patriots employee filming the coaches’ sideline against the Cincinnati Bengals.
The photographer, who was suspended by the Patriots, maintains that the footage was part of the team’s documentary series, “Do Your Job.” The NFL is investigating the incident but has reportedly found no evidence linking the footage to New England’s football operations.
The Patriots aren’t the only NFL team punished for violating league rules. In 2015, the Atlanta Falcons lost their 2016 fifth-round pick and were fined $300,000 for pumping fake crowd noise into their stadium.
Cheating has long been prevalent in the car mechanics of NASCAR. It most recently came to light late in the 2018 season when Kevin Harvick clinched a berth in the “Championship 4.” The berth was revoked after it was discovered that Harvick won a race with a modified spoiler. He got back into the “Championship 4” the next week, fair and square.
Not every scandal has required a technological aspect to work. An old-fashioned recruiting scandal emerged in the college basketball world in 2018 when apparel company Adidas funneled money to the families of high-profile high school recruits. In exchange, those players would choose to attend schools such as Louisville, Kansas and North Carolina State.
The scandal also involved other agencies and implicated at least 25 major programs to various degrees. The fallout was severe: The FBI investigation led to 10 arrests, and some executives — and even former assistant coaches Lamont Evans and Emanuel Richardson — served prison sentences for bribery.
Many of those who are caught, including Mr. Luhnow, reject the label of “cheater.”
The former Astros general manager said in a statement that he took responsibility for the scandal but insisted it happened unknowingly on his watch.
“I am not a cheater,” Mr. Luhnow said. “Anybody who has worked closely with me during my 32-year career inside and outside baseball can attest to my integrity. I did not know rules were being broken. … I would have stopped it.”
That defense was not enough to prevent Mr. Luhnow from saving his job, and the severity of the Astros case could prevent him from working in baseball.
“People are losing their jobs, and that’s pretty significant,” Mr. Klein said. “It sends a strong message to the rest of the league that this isn’t something that’s going to be tolerated or swept under the rug or looked aside anymore. If that’s what Major League Baseball is trying to do, I think that message has been communicated by these punishments.”