It’s not all ‘fun and games’

A CSULA sociology professor analyzes cheating in slow-pitch softball

Picture of CSULA Sociology Professor Gretchen Peterson on the baseball field.

CSULA Sociology Professor Gretchen Peterson studies the prevalence and causes for cheating in adult recreational softball leagues.

By definition, adult recreational softball is meant to be fun. It is an activity that brings adults together after work to “refresh their strength and spirit,” socialize, exercise, and compete in an enjoyable environment.

Recent research by Cal State L.A. Sociology Professor Gretchen Peterson, however, indicates that this American evening and weekend pastime may not be all “fun and games.” Peterson discovered that players in many leagues—especially in California—cheat during slow-pitch softball games and tournaments.

The most common form of cheating is through the use of altered bats. Advanced technology, the emergence of titanium and composite bats and more commonplace know-how have led to a greater number of individuals tampering or shaving down the inside of their bats so that the ball will fly farther and faster when hit, she said.  

“The idea of sport as recreation is a dying idea,” Peterson said. “It’s not just about going out and having fun, but really about demonstrating your own abilities. People are going to great lengths to win, and they are doing it all for a softball tournament where the prize is a t-shirt.”

Through personal observation, interviews and a national online survey Peterson attempts to answer questions about the pervasiveness of cheating in the sport, ways in which people cheat, why they do so and how they feel about the act in her research. A culture of “playing to win”—even when there is serious risk of injury to pitchers and players because of faster flying balls—has really developed and intensified in the last five to six years, said Peterson, who is also a regular participant in adult softball leagues. She has played softball all of her life.

In her survey of more than 1,700 adult recreational softball players, Peterson found that more than a quarter of the respondents said they purposely used an altered bat in play. Nearly half of the respondents also agreed that players who do not use an altered bat are at a disadvantage, she said.

Picture of softball glove and balls on the field.

“The perception of cheating is high,” she said, adding that most common reasons people cited for cheating were to “level the playing field” or to respond to a “teammate’s recommendation to do so.”

In her paper, Is it cheating if everyone is doing it?, Peterson wrote: “Given the prevalence of teammates recommending cheating, it is apparent that a social context is created where cheating is not viewed as unacceptable as it might be in the absence of such a social context.” Peterson herself admitted that she’s gotten “caught up” in the moment and knowingly used an altered bat in play.

Peterson continues to study the phenomenon and seek out its roots and implications in further research. She has also studied other issues in slow-pitch softball, including gendered rules and the act of “going middle,” where players purposely hit at the opposing team’s pitcher.

“I don’t know which would come first,” she said. “People are doing it, so we are hearing about types of cheating more often—because people are very open about it—or they are hearing about it and because of that more people are motivated to cheat.”

But, what plays out on the field and in the dugout, she said, could be emblematic of larger issues of cheating and the idea of fairness in society.