Bo Bichette’s comments about how he would call out his team if it were cheating have evoked a lot of discussion. Should MLB be making it easier for players to take the ethical path?
The Houston Asterisks* cheating scandal has been commented on extensively by writers, executives and current and retired players. Opinions are divided as to what the players should have done. Some believe that a player’s first responsibility is to his team, calling whistleblower Mike Fiers a “snitch” and a “bad teammate“. But others – like Jays’ Bo Bichette – have taken a different view. When asked if he would have participating in the trash can scheme, he replied “I would hope that I would have made a pretty big ruckus that we were doing that in the first place.”
But Bo has the advantage of being a top prospect, with a bright future. Is it reasonable to expect a lesser prospect, or a player already having issues – or a hitting coach – to risk retaliation from his teammates and team management for doing the right thing? Or, to take the question one step further, is there anything that MLB could be doing to make it easier for players to maintain high ethical standards without placing their careers at risk?
Let’s talk about whistleblower hotlines.
Toronto Blue Jays
The business analogy for what the Asterisks did is corporate fraud. In cases like Enron and Worldcom, the companies misrepresented financial results. These misrepresentations helped the company in the short term, generating higher (fictitious) profits and the illusion of a stronger financial position. Employees also benefited, through higher bonuses and increased share prices. But when the truth came out, everyone suffered. In both of those cases, the fraud was identified by “whistleblowers” – employees who refused to participate and reported the frauds to the relevant authorities. That the fraud was identified in this manner is not uncommon – 40% of frauds are identified through tips, making it the most common source of initial fraud detection.
The structure used by companies to encourage tips is an anonymous whistleblower hotline. With this system, an employee could call a third-party service and without identifying themselves in any way describe the situation. The company would then investigate, ideally without ever even disclosing that a whistleblower tip was received.
I do not know if MLB has a similar system, but imagine a scenario where it did. It has been reported that many teams were aware (to some level) that the Asterisks were cheating. Some are reported to have even made complaints to MLB, but no action was taken (possibly due to a lack of evidence?)
In my scenario, MLB establishes an “internal audit” department tasked with conducting regular reviews of all teams as well as investigating tips, and establishes an anonymous hotline. One Asterisks player calls the line and describes the scam. The audit team investigates immediately, discovers the cheat, and shuts it down. The Asterisks never know whether the audit team discovered the scam by chance, due to a tip from a player or coach on another team, from a fan or writer, or from one of their own players. They can not retaliate against the whistleblower because they do not know who it was.
This solution has several advantages. The cheat is (hopefully!) detected earlier, so the season is less “tainted” and the punishments can be less severe. Players are not put in the position where they have to compromise their principles out of fear. And the existence of a hotline could make teams less likely to cheat, knowing that the risk of detection is that much higher.
Some might suggest that using a whistleblower hotline is somehow disloyal to a player’s team or teammates. Randall Grichuk had an interesting take on this when he said
"“I think what a lot of people don’t realize is how much it actually affects the game, not just wins and losses,” said Grichuk. “It affects the guys in triple-A trying to get back to the majors. Guys who were compared to them in arbitration, how much they made. So now they’re going to make less.”"
The bottom line
It is easy to say that you would “do the right thing” in a situation like the Asterisks. But when your career and millions of dollars of earnings are potentially on the line, not to mention your relationship with your teammates, it would be a much harder decision. And when you see a player like Fiers receiving death threats, a system which protects the whistleblower while still addressing the problem make a lot of sense.
* not their real name (unfortunately)