In Sports, what is a Ringer?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 October 2019
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The expression ringer generally refers to the illicit practice of using a clearly superior competitor in order to gain an unfair advantage. A ringer could be a professional athlete, a retired competitor or a well-trained animal. Recruiting a ringer specifically for a competition would be viewed as unethical or illegal, however, so it is not unusual for a company or team to employ the professional in a completely different capacity. The new mail room clerk, for example, could be a former college track star or a retired baseball player. The competitor may qualify technically, but his or her skills or experience would be kept secret.

There are several theories surrounding the origin of the word, but one of the most popular involves the world of horse racing. During the early days of competitive horse racing, certain unscrupulous owners would deliberately use inferior horses in earlier races. Once a horse became established as a perennial loser, the odds against that horse winning a later race rose substantially. At this point, with the betting stakes at their highest, the owner would substitute a identical horse with much better speed. Some sources suggest this practice of changing horses was reminiscent of the old expression "ringing the changes," meaning to announce a substitution. Others suggest that the superior horse was a "dead ringer" for the slower animal, so the impostor became known as a ringer.


Sometimes the identity and skill level of a team's ringer remains unknown and the losing team will simply accept defeat at the hands of a superior competitor. Other times, however, the ringer's true identity may be compromised and the results of the competition can be challenged. This is one reason the use of ringers to gain an unfair competitive advantage can be very risky. While it may not be strictly illegal to recruit players based on their natural athletic abilities, exploiting the rules in order to qualify a player under false pretenses is generally consider bad form.

It is not unusual for an exceptionally skilled player to hide his or her true abilities in order to gain a tactical advantage over his or her competitors. An experienced billiards player, for instance, will often miss relatively easy shots or lose several games in order to establish himself or herself as only an average player. When the stakes become higher, however, he or she will often start playing at a much higher level and completely dominate the game. A ringer may also have a very plausible cover story to explain his or her superior skills, such as previous participation in youth sports programs or high school athletics. The ringer and the ringer's employer must use caution not to reveal too much information before, during and after the competition. The revelation of an ineligible ringer can result in a complete forfeit of the competition and other sanctions.


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Post 4
I never fully understood why ringers in pool were so vilified. When you play pool and you choose to bet money then you are taking the responsibility for what happens. No one is forcing you to wager your money. If you win a couple games and the other player wants to raise the stakes, you can say no. If you decide to raise the stakes and then lose then you should take responsibility for your actions.
Post 3

Drentel - I'm not sure I follow you. So you would be okay with losing your company basketball game because the other team had former top notch college players? What if the other company hired the players primarily to play basketball--not because of their resumes?

Post 2

Animandel - Yes, that was a revealing story about the race horses. I didn't know where the term ringer started either. While I would be the first to admit that what the article described with the switching of horses is not ethical and not legal, I don't have a problem with ringers in general.

If you play the game by the rules then I have no objection. For example, if one of the guys on your work basketball team happens to be a former college All-America basketball player then that's just the breaks. I don't think the former college player should be disqualified from playing because he is a good athlete and he used to play basketball at a high level.

Post 1

The word ringer is so widely used that I never considered how or where it originated. Wasn't that a great story about the impostor horse, the ringer, being used in horse races?

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