Cheering cheaters cheapens all of us

September 23, 2007|By RICK MAESE

Reading the headlines, you notice the details might be different, but the theme is the same.

An NFL coach breaks league rules ... another ballplayer - another Oriole, in fact - linked to the purchase of performance-enhancing drugs ... a doped cyclist stripped of his Tour de France win ... a young Maryland quarterback ruled ineligible because of a classroom indiscretion ...

Initially, such news reports stirred the same feeling: sagging shoulders, pursed lips and a heavy, nasal sigh of disappointment. But our reaction is different now, isn't it? We're unmoved. We've grown accustomed to ethical disappointments.

Let the record show that in the early part of the 21st century, our sports world teetered on the edge of moral bankruptcy, and we all watched it unfold - live and in high-definition! - completely and utterly unaffected.

That's where we are right now - teetering. Lean a bit this way, and we forever accept that our sporting events might always be fraudulent on some level. Put a little bit more weight in this other direction, though, and we can still entertain the idea of fair play, of rules, and of sportsmanship.

I don't mean to sound alarmist. Certainly cheating isn't new, but it's become tougher to attach romanticism to the rule breaking, if only because the instances and infractions have grown increasingly flagrant and more frequent. But no, the idea of cheating isn't a new one.

"In Ancient Greece, the Olympic games were rife with cheating," noted the 2004 book The Cheating Culture. "Athletes lied about their amateur status, competitions were rigged, judges were bribed. Those caught were forced to pay fines to a special fund used to erect statues of Zeus. Greece ended up with a lot of statues of Zeus."

The book goes on to suggest that cheating is on the rise across the board - from the baseball field to Wall Street to college classrooms - an assertion supported by recent news headlines.

To understand more about why we cheat, why we might be cheating more now and what it says about the direction we're headed, I spoke with the book's author, David Callahan, last week. He pinpointed four underlying attributes - which apply to cheating in sports, but might also explain why we fudge our taxes, why your neighbor steals cable or why you might pocket the money when a cashier gives incorrect change.

1. Income inequality creates incentives and makes cutting corners seem rational.

2. Heightened insecurity and anxiety over "having enough" to survive, or at least having as much as our peers.

3. Sleeping watchdogs - the baseball commissioner's office, the IRS, government regulators.

4. "Cheating is more tolerated right now," Callahan says. "It's the cultural norm in America, where the values are so often me-first, focused on individualism. There's a social Darwinism in which we worship winners even if they haven't necessarily used the best means to become winners. We're so focused on the ends that we're willing to forgive the means."

As it concerns the brains and muscle that run our sports world, allow me to add a couple of others:

5. Incessant coddling from a young age that leads to a sense of entitlement and a blurring of the line separating right from wrong.

6. The absence of other options that come anywhere close to matching the rewards offered in sports. I'm generalizing here, but most athletes don't have the background or education level to reasonably expect a comparable income or comparable success from other fields.

Combined, our societal landscape, especially in sports, provides a fertile backdrop - a "perfect formula," Callahan calls it - for cheating to run rampant.

But will it stop? Will fans be forced to either accept or reject their favorite sports based on whether they're willing to accept or reject cheating?

The money will always be there. The carrot on the end of the stick will only become juicier. The pragmatist in me realizes people cheat because they want to win and because they want to enjoy the rewards. In sports, the rewards aren't free HBO; they're millions of dollars, plus fame and praise and the kind of everlasting ego massage that surely makes it easier to compromise whatever innocent ideals an athlete or coach might've begun with.

Plus, we're a society that peers over the fence to see what the neighbors have. It creates pressure to succeed and provide at a similar level. As long as there are a couple of cheats, others will follow, pressured to cut the same corners.

Will it subside? I tend to think not. Callahan, the author, harbors hope, however. "Preventing or deterring cheating isn't rocket science," he says, suggesting that leagues and teams continue meting out serious penalties that send a clear message: The risk is greater than the reward.

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