Perhaps I have been teaching auditing and ethics too long, but it seems like my life consists of reading story after story about rule benders and enablers. The latest and greatest example in the world of sports is the allegation by ESPN that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell ordered evidence destroyed that implicated the New England Patriots and coach Bill Belichick in a long-term cheating scandal prior to the famous Spygate game in 2007. The allegation is that if the public knew that the Patriots’ filming of other coaches’ signals was a multiyear, not a one-time, event, it would damage the image of the league and of one of its bellwether franchises. Goodell’s recent harsh punishment of quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots for deflating footballs prior to last year’s AFC Championship Game was seen as him fulfilling his promise to harshly punish anyone who stepped over the line again. But Brady’s punishment was overturned by an arbitrator.
In this saga, the Patriots are the rule benders and Roger Goodell is the enabler. But the other 31 NFL owners, who allegedly knew of the document destruction, were also enablers if they acted to protect the value of the league and, thus, their own franchises. In my world, it is audit firms that enable their clients to misstate their financial statements and refuse to exercise the necessary professional skepticism to prevent frauds, like the recently announced sanctions against the auditors of General Employment Enterprises.
Major League Baseball seems hesitant to marshal any strong response to the FBI investigation of the St. Louis Cardinals’ hacking of the Houston Astros’ player evaluation database. The Cardinals fired their scouting director in early July, about two weeks after the hacking was announced. But two days after the announcement, an attorney hired by the Cardinals months before to investigate the hacking called a press conference to assert that there was no link to upper management. Major League Baseball waited until that investigation was done before the accusations became public. Of course, the FBI investigation and the Cardinals’ own internal review may lead to identifying all the culprits.
But I am not holding my breath. Stories indicate the fired scouting director may accuse Jeff Luhnow, the Astros’ general manager, of stealing the database from the Cardinals. If so, these issues would be in the papers for months. Major League Baseball and its owners, perhaps with the exception of one, want to move on and clear the decks. They appear ready and able to enable cheating in baseball, just as the NFL is alleged to have done with the Patriots. Who wants to talk about cheating with the playoffs coming up? They might do what’s right. But I am skeptical.
What triggered me writing this blog was a Twitter post claiming that it was unfair that last year’s U.S. Little League champions were stripped of their title for using players a mile out of their district, but Tom Brady got away with cheating. Those who bend the rules to their own ends rarely worry about the common good, and the way their stories are used by others to excuse their own cheating. But the Patriots and the Cardinals are simply the insider traders of professional sports. With insider trading, there is a stock exchange that is persuaded not to enable this behavior, and there is an SEC to investigate the traders, and to punish the stock exchanges if they cooperate with the traders. Unfortunately, in professional sports, the league is both the potential enabler and the investigator.
We already have an idea how well that worked with the NFL, and Major League Baseball is in the on-deck circle. But in a competitive world, cheaters get rich, and enablers get rich off the cheaters. For those people, it often smells like success. But for a society that values justice and fair play, it is corrosive. And, in my book, the enablers are just as bad as the cheaters.