Can Baseball Fans Sue an Opposing Team for Electronic Cheating?
In baseball, stealing signs has always been an accepted part of the game.
If a runner on second base can figure out that a curveball is coming next by decoding a catcher's signs, it's OK if he relays that information to the batter by, say, touching the bill of his cap. In fact, that's considered good, smart baseball.
But if a team uses electronic technology to steal signs, that's a no-no.
And that is why A.J. Hinch and Jeff Luhnow found themselves unemployed Jan. 13. Hinch and Luhnow were the manager and general manager, respectively, of the Houston Astros, a team that was found by Major League Baseball to have used electronic technology to steal signs in 2017 (when it won the World Series) and 2018.
Here's how it worked: A video camera in the centerfield seats relayed live feeds to a monitor just down the steps from the Astros' dugout. Players and team employees watched the screen and tried to decode the images of catchers' signs transmitted by the camera. When they thought they'd figured out the signs, they would relay that information to the batter about the next pitch by banging on trash cans. Usually, the bangs told the batters that the next pitch would not be a fastball, which provided them an advantage because they could lean in and look for an offspeed pitch.
This information was reported Nov. 12, 2019 by The Athletic, a sports website, in an article that also claimed electronic sign stealing was pervasive throughout Major League Baseball.
The article had an impact, spurring an investigation by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred. On Jan. 13 the league fined the Astros $5 million, ordered it to forfeit their first- and second-round draft picks for the next two years, and suspended Hinch and Luhnow. The team then responded to this mountain of bad publicity by firing Hinch and Luhnow the same day.
In other words, electronic cheating can result in dire consequences for a team that gets caught.
Sports Tickets Provide Limited Rights
But what about fans, who pay handsomely for tickets on the assumption that they're witnessing a competitive contest not sullied by cheating? Or what about those who lost money on games where outcomes may have been altered by electronic cheating?
What can they do? Can they sue?
Attorney Michael McCann, a frequent contributor to Sports Illustrated, addressed that question in a recent issue of that magazine.
"All it would take is for one of them to file a complaint in court in order for there to be a lawsuit," he wrote.
However, from that point on, the fan/plaintiff would apparently have a tough row to hoe.
While a fan could argue that one team's cheating meant that the game was not played fairly, McCann points out that tickets "offer only a very limited legal promise: the promise to watch a game played between two teams from the vantage point of a particular seat."
That assessment — that a ticket buys you a right to watch a game from a particular location and nothing more — is pretty much what courts concluded when an unhappy New York Jets football fan sued the New England Patriots on grounds that the Patriots cheated.
In that case, Jets season ticket holder Carl Mayer filed suit following the so-called "Spygate" scandal, which involved improper videotaping of signals from the Jets sidelines by the Patriots in a 2007 game. Mays argued that the Patriots "violated the contractual expectations" of fans who assumed a Jets-Patriots game "would be an honest match." A federal trial court and a federal appeals court said no such contractual expectation exists.
So if you're a disgruntled baseball fan whose team lost to the Astros, this is hardly inspiration that you could win a lawsuit.
But if you're seeking general payback, it could nevertheless provide some satisfaction, McCann writes.
"A lawsuit could still prove disruptive for the Astros and MLB," he writes. "This would be particularly true if a lawsuit advanced into the pretrial discovery stage, where the Astros and MLB would need to share emails and where club and league officials might have to testify under oath. … Fans would be watching. So too would bettors who place bets on MLB games with certain assumptions of fair play."
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