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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

One of my interests in this arena is the quasi-legal nature of the rules and regulations involved in sports, sports teams and leagues, and sports management. So I wanted to comment on this week's sports/law stupidity.

Don Shula, the coach of the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the last NFL team to go undefeated, now argues that if the 2007 Patriots go undefeated (the Pats are 9-0 and far above everyone else in the league), an asterisk should be placed on their record, in light of the finding that the Patriots violated league rules in an early-season game by videotaping the opposing team's sideline to steal signals. This is the latest effort to impose an asterisk to taint and diminish what otherwise would be a record performance. Earlier this month, the man who caught the ball from Barry Bonds' record-breaking 756th career home run announced that he would brand the ball with an asterisk and donate it to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The asterisk would suggest that Bonds' record is tainted by his alleged steroid use--steroid use that Bonds continues to deny and that Major League Baseball never has found, although other sources document his alleged use.

Can we please stop with the asterisks already?

The first alleged asterisk to denote-but-diminish a record was not, in fact, an asterisk (despite Billy Crystal's version of baseball history). In 1961, when Roger Maris hit 61 home runs to break Babe Ruth's single-season record of 60, Commissioner Ford Frick ordered that official record books would celebrate two marks--Maris for 61 in 162 games, Ruth for 60 in 154 games (Maris hit only 59 in his first 154 games). There never was never an asterisk next to Maris' record; Major League Baseball just decided to keep two records and have two official record-holders, based on the different rules (the length of season) under which the players performed and the records were set. Now this was, indeed, an attempt to diminish Maris' achievement--or more accurately to keep the immortal Ruth at the top of the record book. And it was pretty stupid, as indicated by the fact that MLB changed the books in 1991 to establish one single-season record. But there was at least some arguable logical basis for having two records, given the different rules and conditions.

Shula and the baseball people are suggesting something different: Name one record holder but put an official asterisk by his name to denote something amiss about the record, thus quasi-officially keeping the prior record holder at the top of the books. And that is even dumber than Frick's idea of two official records. If there ever is a finding that Bonds cheated, that might justify taking his name out of the record book. This is, for example, the actions of the Tour de France to strip Floyd Landis of his 2006 victory when his failed doping test was confirmed; college teams similarly are retroactively stripped of victories and championships based on findings of past cheating.

As to the Patriots, if they broke the rules to achieve a perfect season, strip them of their victories. But this does not appear appropriate in this case. There was a league finding that they broke the rules in one game and they were punished--but not with a forfeit of the game. The NFL obviously determined that their conduct did not affect the outcome of that game and did not warrant a forfeit, which would deprive them of that perfect season. Absent that, there is nothing "tainted" about the achievement, if it happens.

The record books should reflect top achievements consistent with applicable rules. . If someone achieves a record through unlawful activity, is found to have engaged in that unlawful activity, and is to be punished for that unlawful activity, such punishment can (and should) include the loss of records and titles. With an explanation, of course. Erasing players, teams, and achievements from history is itself a dangerous proposition--probably more dangerous than having "tainted" record holders.

But it is ridiculous to take this half-measure of an official asterisk, while leaving the record and record-holder in place based on a suspicion of relevant wrongdoing or, as in Shula's case, sour grapes (the '72 Dolphins are notorious for the vigor with which they guard their achievement). And it flies in the face of the normal approach of finding a violation of rules, then imposing a meaningful and relevant punishment.

(Cross-Posted on PrawfsBlawg, where I am guesting this week)

Update, Thursday, 3 p.m. C.S.T.:

A commenter at Prawfs pointed me here: Shula went on Mike & Mike and said he would not argue for an asterisk and that if the Pats run the table, they are the best team. No indication from the story as to why Shula changed his mind about this.


I don't have a problem with the record books reflecting the top accomplishments prior to a change in season length or a signficant change in the rules. For example before passing rules were liberalized top passing efforts were much lower. In college football when the goal posts were wider, the kicker used a tee, and missed field goals resulted in the ball being placed on the 20 rather than the line of scrimmage a 50 yard field goal wasn't that uncommon, now it is fairly rare because it is harder to make and the consequence of a miss more severe.

The Dolphins went 14-0 in regular season and 17-0 including the playoffs. The Pats (or anyone else today) would have to win 16 in regular season and three in the playoffs to make it to 19-0.

For another rule book adjustment.

Blogger Mark -- 11/08/2007 9:48 AM  

Great post. I definitely agree. It's absurd to propose that records be denoted as "suspicious" or "tainted" simply because some slither of doubt as to the authenticity of the record might exist. All this is, is an attempt by individuals that oppose the new record holder and/or the record being broken in order to keep the previous individual/team in the top spot.

I understand that one can become attached to records and being viewed as the pinnacle of that sport, but as the famous phrase announces, "records are made to be broken." It seems that Don Shula is having trouble with the fact that his "perfect season" could fall to another team, a team that arguably could be better than the 72 Dolphins. Furthermore, Shula's comments are premature. For the Patriots to finish undefeated and win the Super Bowl, they still must win ten games. The Patriots are less than halfway to the point of being declared the new greatest team in NFL history.

Moreover, the Patriots "spying" have never been proved to have impacted the game. The "spying" was detected and stopped during the game. There has never been any proof that the "spying" had an impact on the game against the Jets or any other game for that matter. So, it has not been proved that the actions of the Patriots actually "tainted" their season; it has not been proved that the success of the Patriots this season has resulted from the "spying." Rather, this has been inferred, which is an impermissible basis to predicate a condemnation of a potential record season on. The problem has been addressed by the NFL in the manner the commissioner saw fit. No other discussion should pursue unless new facts come to light.

People need to accept the fact that records will be broken and there will be questioning of the new record holder, but until something conclusively is proved or determined, the new record needs to stand unblemished. It has never been authoritatively confirmed that Barry Bonds ever used steroids. Likewise, the Patriots were never proved of cheating to a point of warranting a forfeiture of the game. Therefore, both of these records, as should others, should be entered into the record books without an asterisk.

Anonymous Matthew Courtner -- 11/08/2007 11:47 AM  

The disdain that I have for the '72 Dolphins is strong. Their arrogance is very off-putting.

Anonymous Draft King -- 11/08/2007 2:17 PM  

Shule never came out to tell everyone that he thought there should be an asterisk on the Pats this year, he answered a direct question about whether there should be one. He was then interviewed on ESPN and repeatedly stated that he, in fact, did not go out of his way to bring up this topic, He also repeatedly stated that neither he, not any members of the '72 Dolphins sit around and wait for the last team to lose each season so that they can celebrate being the only undefeated team.

The idiots on ESPN --and now about twenty other news outlets and sports talking heads-- ignored him completely, repeatedly asking him the same question over and over, whether he felt more should be done, whether he thought the Pats were threatening the good name of the NFL, on and on.

The talking heads are making this a story, and no one cares but them.

What a world we live in today, where one idiot can write something, and everyone everywhere repeats it as if it was gospel.

Anonymous John Perricone -- 11/08/2007 10:20 PM  

I do not draw a distinction between someone reaching out to make a statement or bring up an issue and making a statement in response to a question. If Shula did not (at least originally) believe there should be an asterisk (or whatever), he would have answered "no" in response to the questions.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 11/08/2007 10:53 PM  

If Barry Bonds did indeed use perfromance enhancing drugs from after the 1998 season to the end of the 2003 season as alleged in Game of Shadows please identify what player conduct rules (as defined by the CBA) Barry broke and what penalties (as defined by the CBA) were in place for these infractions. Guess what, you can't because there were not any. Baseball has no basis to punish Barry or anyone else for steroids use prior to the 2005 season. Even during the 2004 season there really wasn't any punishment as a failed test only resulted in a warning that another failed test would result in a suspension.

Just what legal or semi quasi legal grounds does baseball have to delete Barry's records from the record books even if they are able to prove his use of steroids during this unregulated time peroid? How can you support applying new standards to old behavior?

Anonymous giantsrainman -- 11/09/2007 12:21 AM  

Just for clarity, the guy who caught the Bonds home run and the guy who is branding it and giving it to the Hall are separate people. Fashion designer Mark Ecko bought the ball at auction from Matt Murphy, then ran a contest to decide the ball's fate.

Otherwise, a very enjoyable post.

Blogger Ben -- 11/09/2007 5:22 AM  

shula is only fueling belichick's fire. yet another reason, not only play tom brady and randy moss in weeks 16 and 17 to complete their undefeated season, but to throw bombs in the 4th quarter up 4 TDs.

on top of that, the patriots will do the unthinkable in a season where it is very likely shula's dolphins - quite possibly the worst team ever assembled - could go a paltry 0-16 barring a win against the bills this weekend or against the jets in December.

Blogger Adam W -- 11/09/2007 9:36 AM  

Giantsrainman--how about "bringing the game into disrepute" for starters; usually that clause is in most player contracts (and possibly in the CBA depending on the league). Or maybe something along the lines of, say, illegal drug use (depending on what was said in the grand jury).

Oh, and adam w: It isn't "Shula's Dolphins"; he left coaching 12 years ago . . . unless he is in some position in the organization which hires and fires players and coaches.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 11/09/2007 10:06 AM  

The seemingly open question is whether steroid use was, in fact, unlawful under MLB rules or the CBA. Some knowledgeable people have argued that steroids were against the rules prior to 2005, but there was no testing or enforcement of the rules. If so, then Bonds did break the rules and could be punished pursuant to the Commissioner's catch-all Best Interest power.

Alternatively, even if steroids were not against MLB rules pre-2005, steroid use without a prescription and a legitimate medical purpose was against federal law. So, too, is lying to a grand jury about steroid use. Either arguably could be punished within the MLB pursuant to the Best Interests power.

And a punishment involving MLB's own control of its record books (which in no way deprives Bonds of his ability to make a living) would be a uniquely appropriate exercise of those powers.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 11/09/2007 12:13 PM  

anon: thanks for the update. if you live in south florida, you'd know it is and always will be shula's dolphins. the ineptitude that followed his regime with the fins is a testament to that. i'm personally not even a dolphins fan, but neither the team nor this city has gotten over the shula/marino era. for good reason.

regardless of the spying, which has no business creating the asterisk, wouldn't this situation parallel maris' run to 61*? maris has the asterisk because he played in more games. if anyone should get an asterisk, the dolphins - who will remain in the record books as an undefeated team - should get the asterisk for only having to play 17 games instead of 19. that would be a nice role reversal. go jets.

Blogger Adam W -- 11/09/2007 3:37 PM  

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