While the NFL is heading into its championship weekend, another one of the nation’s biggest sports leagues is currently enjoying a not-so-quiet offseason: Major League Baseball is in the middle of a wide-ranging cheating scandal, with the Houston Astros being found guilty of running an illegal sign-stealing scheme during their 2017 championship season. They are not the only franchise being investigated by the league, however.
The Boston Red Sox have also come under scrutiny after being alleged of the same infraction under recently fired manager and former Astros bench coach Alex Cora. Not only is the investigation expected to do serious damage to the Red Sox program — the Astros were stripped of two first- and two second-round picks after being found guilty — it also casts a shadow of doubt on the legitimacy of the organization’s World Series title in 2018.
This is, of course, not the first time a team in the region is accused of gaining a competitive advantage through unfair means: in 2007, the New England Patriots were found guilty by the NFL of ignoring a memo regulating a team’s ability to record the opposing sideline and use the information gained from it. The Patriots were stripped a first-round draft selection and fined $250,000, while head coach Bill Belichick was forced to pay $500,000.
It is therefore only natural to look for a comparison between the scandals, something the Boston Globe just recently did that when it published a story titled How the Alex Cora cheating scandal compares with the Patriots’ Spygate (although the actual story and the headline do not really match). However, a closer look at the two affairs in question shows that the circumstances between the Patriots’ and the Red Sox’s infractions are quite different.
Let’s start with the Red Sox’s sign-stealing scandal. While the MLB’s investigation into the matter is ongoing, the team is accused of running a scheme to decipher opponents’ signs that is in violation of the league’s rules. Players, according to a report by The Athletic, would visit the replay room to analyze sign sequences and then relay the information through the dugout and a baserunner to the batter to give him an advantage when on the plate.
This is not legal under the MLB’s rules, and was reiterated in 2017 when league commissioner Rob Manfred sent a memo to all 30 clubs notifying them that “electronic equipment, including game feeds in the Club replay room and/or video room, may never be used during a game for the purpose of stealing the opposing team’s signs” — exactly what the Red Sox are accused of having done under Cora’s leadership during the 2018 season.
The Patriots’ own spying scandal was a bit more complicated not just because an erroneous report by the Boston Herald stated the team illegally filmed the then-St. Louis Rams’ practice ahead of Super Bowl 36 — something that never happened and was later retracted by the paper, but persists to this day in some media circles. The gist of the story, meanwhile, was New England’s interpretation of a memo sent out by the NFL in 2006.
The memo stated that “videotaping of any type, including but not limited to taping of an opponent’s offensive or defensive signals, is prohibited on the sidelines, in the coaches’ booth, in the locker room, or at any other locations accessible to club staff members during the game.” This phrasing, however, contradicted the NFL’s rules at the time — and the rule book can furthermore only be changed by ownership vote, one that had not happened in this particular case.
Belichick and company therefore went with their own interpretation of the rule while trying to be in accordance with what was regulated by the NFL’s bylaws, that filming was allowed regardless of camera location as long as the material was not used in-game. And therein lies the difference to what the Red Sox are accused of having done: the Patriots simply interpreted a vaguely-worded memo differently and did not scheme around a clear-cut rule.
The only true comparison between the two scandals, therefore, lies in the use of video equipment. Other than that, it is hard to find how the two are anything like each other even though the final results — steep penalties brought upon the clubs by the respective commissioners — could eventually look similar.