Manchester City and the Houston Astros are both cheaters, but very different sorts and with very different results.
City’s cheating is of the financial sort. In an effort to prevent super-rich teams from running over the competition, UEFA – the overseer of all European soccer leagues – instituted a regime it calls Financial Fair Play. It’s like socialism for billionaires.
In essence, a team may only spend what it earns. It can’t go back to Father (e.g. a Russian oligarch, a Saudi sheikh) looking for more cash every time it wants to buy a new toy in midfield.
City is the richest team of any sort in the world, as well as the one that cares least about profit margins.
Its solution to this problem was to make its Emirati ownership the team’s primary sponsor, then vastly inflate the amount of money paid for things such as logo rights. This naughty business was revealed in a series of document leaks.
Soccer teams are constantly up to this sort of thing because it’s seen as a victimless crime. No one’s forcing the players to sign anywhere. If other teams want to find themselves a foreign sugar daddy, they’re welcome to get one. And aren’t we all just one, big, happy, stupidly wealthy soccer family? That seems to be the rationale.
But having been shown hard evidence, UEFA did something remarkable in this instance – it put the hammer down on City. The key punishment is that City is banned from the Champions League for two years.
This isn’t a small thing. One of the biggest teams in the world has just been gut shot by its bosses as an example to others.
This is how you keep order.
Then there’s the Major League Baseball way. You find out someone hasn’t just bent the accounting rules, but has subverted the results of competition. And your response is to do nothing. A dressing down and off you go with a warning. Please never do that again.
This is how things go badly wrong.
Over the weekend, the two scandals went in opposite directions.
Houston’s is mushrooming. Players on other teams are in open revolt. Boston Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale warned that baseball “polices itself.”
“I think you’re going to see some stuff happen this year,” Sale said. “I don’t know if it’s right, wrong or indifferent. Guys are certainly welcome to handle things however they want.’’
Well, gosh, what could he mean by that?
All I know is that if I played for the Houston Astros, I would come to the plate in one of those padded suits guys from the bomb squad wear the next time I faced Chris Sale.
The guys working on baseball’s factory floor are sending a message to the bosses: no justice, no peace.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred was forced out of hiding to address the issue. This is his third or fourth attempt at calming things down. Each time he talks, they get worse.
Manfred’s view is that an old fashioned shunning is worse than any actual sanction.
“I think if you look at the faces of the Houston players, as they’ve been out there publicly addressing this issue, they have been hurt by this,” Manfred said.
Manfred was less understanding on the hurt of those who got ripped off by the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme.
“I hope that I made it extremely clear to them that retaliation in-game by throwing at a batter intentionally will not be tolerated, whether it’s Houston or anybody else,” Manfred said.
Creating two tiers of law – this is how you start a revolution.
It’s unlikely this will get totally out of hand. At field level, baseball’s class system is flat. There is no aristocracy versus bourgeoisie to drive animus. Everyone involved in this fight is bougie. Class loyalty will probably be enough to maintain calm during games, with a few minor eruptions.
What’s still to be determined is whether baseball players have the wherewithal to take this fight where it belongs – to the level above them, to ownership.
That’s where this went wrong. Houston wasn’t punished because baseball isn’t really a competition between 30 teams. It’s a monopoly shared by 30 owners. They’re in it together. Manfred is their employee. He can punish the hell out of any player. But an owner? That’s outside his purview.
Despite huge, initial anger, City’s scandal was instead moving into an administrative phase.
UEFA is not beholden to any particular interest. It oversees a couple of dozen leagues, but doesn’t exercise control. They run themselves based on UEFA’s (and FIFA’s) rules. UEFA pays teams to play (in the Champions League and other tournaments) rather than being paid by them.
The Champions League, the world’s most popular professional sporting tournament, is a stick and a carrot. Once you’ve qualified for it, you get cash and credibility. All that cash and credibility make next year’s qualification more likely, earning you further cash and credibility. It’s a virtuous circle.
Remove a team from the circle and it starts to wither. Its best players want to move on. If they can’t, they want more money, which you no longer have because you aren’t in the Champions League.
This is a punishment with teeth. People may not like it, but they respect it.
You don’t hear the players doing any more than pro forma complaining. City has now put its hope in the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which could overturn or amend the penalty.
Either way, UEFA’s hands are clean. It did the right thing. If a court sees it otherwise, that’s not on it.
Order has been maintained. Future malfeasants are cowed. Balance has been restored to the system (until the next team tries it, which they most definitely will).
This is how you run a sports league.
While Major League Baseball and its old boys network are watching their game twist itself into knots for the next little while, they might want to have a think on how things always seem to be better in Europe.