Play Foul and Fair

Rule breakers vs. game changers

Posted Jul 14, 2016

Rule breakers come in three varieties: the cheater, the spoilsport, and the game-changer. We despise the first, we puzzle over the second, and we usually admire the third.

First, the cheaters. Let’s start with an obvious example: professional bicycle racing. In an earlier blog post, I teased out some moral complexities regarding pervasive dishonesty in a previously “dirty” era of pro cycling. (Between 1998 and 2013, three out of four Tour de France winners resorted to using performance-enhancing drugs, and this, peculiarly, enforced a regime of equality of opportunity.) With this year’s Tour approaching and Lance Armstrong’s disgrace still fresh, there’s a new deceit to consider. Rumors of competitors riding electrically-boosted bicycles appeared in Europe as early as 2004. But in February of this year, race officials discovered a hidden motor in cyclo-cross star Femke Van den Driessche’s bike after she crashed during the world championship race in Belgium. The devious technology she resorted to looks like something “Q” from the James Bond series cooked up. Colluding engineers conceal a motor within the bicycle’s vertical seat tube. (They hide the battery in a fake water bottle.) Insulating materials dampen the sound of a working transmission—a pinion gear—that sits at the pedal hub and transmits power to the bracket axle and to the chainset that drives the rear wheel.

The trickery works in certain competitive circumstances, where added power overcomes the costs of additional weight. Here are the physics and the dimensions of the fraud: an unassisted pro rider generates an average of between 200 and 300 watts and sustains that output over the course of a four-hour race. So the addition of 100 to 200 watts for one hour (roughly the life of the onboard battery) could contribute substantially to a rider’s performance. The motor helps, especially, during climbs and attacks, which make all the difference in cycling. Thermal imaging or electronic surveillance might detect the modification, but this form of cheating isn’t easy to spot other than by unusual performance. For example, normally, cyclists who want to put on extra speed stand on the pedals for a burst of power, but the cyclist who remains seated during a superhuman acceleration will tip off alert observers to foul play. I say more power to recreational cyclers who want to use an electric bike to keep up with faster friends and family members, but in competition, this technology deserves the description “mechanical doping.”

Next the spoilsports. Unlike cheaters, spoilsports deny or delegitimize the game. Johan Huizinga, the Dutch philologist who studied play, noted that we can more easily forgive cheaters than spoilsports because the cheaters, at least, stay in the game. Knaves they are, cheaters break the rules but still expect others to abide by them. So the game survives. For Huizinga, spoilsports don’t so much break the rules as they “shatter” play itself by destroying its illusions. They undermine the fragile agreements that govern play and say the game itself isn’t worth playing. Spoilsports rob play of its dignity; they tip over the gaming table and head-butt the power forward. Or a spoilsport may even motorize her road bike. (It turns out that a cheater can also be a spoilsport.) These killjoys pick up their ball and go home. A spoilsport might even spoil the sport by playing too hard—spiking in a friendly volleyball game or brushing back a batter with a high and inside pitch at a neighborhood picnic. A spoilsport will bring contact football intensity to a game of touch. Spoilsports won’t, or can’t, play along. In fact, the spoilsport who fails to chill makes us wonder why on earth he’s playing the game in the first place.

And so finally to the game changers. Jacky Robinson broke major league baseball’s “color barrier” when he started at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers and so helped to change American culture. The Buffalo Bills took their no huddle, hurry-up offense to four Super Bowls in the early 1990s. The game-changing strategy left defenders’ helmets spinning. Eunice Kennedy Shriver changed the goals of competition when she founded the Special Olympics and brought the thrill of competing to athletes with intellectual disabilities.

Other now nameless creative people hybridized old competitions to make new sports—Frisbee golf; foot golf and foot volley, soccer played with giant inflated spheres and Mini-Coopers; and (I’m not kidding) chess boxing. New technologies and new materials changed old games; think of padded boxing gloves, dimpled golf balls and clubs with titanium shafts, graphite tennis racquets, fiberglass pole-vaulters’ poles, neoprene wheels for skateboards, parabolic skis, and skateboards. Game-changing inventors include Fred Morrison, who designed the flying disc that gave countercultural students a peaceful alternative to college football, and Nolan Bushnell, who revolutionized play itself by pitting players against an artificial intelligence in the form of a video game.

Wikipedia Commons
Source: Wikipedia Commons

At the beginning, I noted that we usually admire game changers in business, the arts, and sports. But over time, sourpusses have blamed them for technological unemployment, grammatical heresy, quackery, political incorrectness, musical outrage, sacrilege, miscegenation, artlessness, and un-gentlemanliness. And so, luddites and mossbacks have criticized innovators like Steven Jobs, William Shakespeare, Louis Pasteur, The Beatles, Martin Luther, Sammy Davis Jr., Martha Graham, and Oscar Wilde. Politics, too, has welcomed its share of trendsetters and trailblazers: some change things for better and for good while others just disrupt. This summer many Americans are asking themselves which of these will Donald Trump turn out to be. It’s an open question now, but time always tells, and sometimes it tells quickly, who is a herald of the bright future and who is a spoiler.