Cheating in Athletics: The Real Cost of (a Lack of) Trust

06/10/2015 03:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2016

Athletes are among the most revered and well-paid people on the planet. Sports fans are willing to shower praise and shell out money to watch their favorite athletes play games. Fans buy expensive tickets, jerseys, books, trading cards, and products that their favorite athletes promote on television. These athletes are awarded trust on the basis of their on-field performance, and when that trust is broken, it can cost millions of dollars in lost salary, endorsement deals, and future earnings after their playing career is over. When Tiger Woods' extramarital affairs became public in November 2009, he lost lucrative deals with AT&T, Accenture, Gatorade, TAG Heuer, and General Motors, costing him an estimated $22 million in 2010 alone [1]. Add that to the estimated $12 billion loss [2] to investors in the companies that hired Woods as a sponsor, and it is clear that Woods' loss of trust among his global fan base was expensive to many people far beyond the world of golf and Woods' family.

The list goes on and on... Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Michael Vick, Wayne Rooney, Michael Phelps... all lost millions in endorsement deals after they violated the trust of their fan base. All of their troubles occurred off the field, and trust they never really deserved to earn vanished almost overnight.

What happens when trust is violated on the field? The steroid era in baseball is perhaps the most infamous example. Barry Bonds may have the most home runs in baseball history, but he is remarkably invisible in the world of endorsements, and he isn't in the Baseball Hall of Fame, either. Bonds, along with Alex Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, and Roger Clemens have never admitted openly to their use of steroids, but the investigations showed that it was very likely they did.

On the other hand, players who readily admitted to steroid use, such as Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield [3], faced no legal troubles and were allowed to continue their careers in baseball.

If it takes a while for an athlete to "come clean," it can be even more devastating because audiences get plenty of chances to see you lie. Consider Lance Armstrong's fall from grace for his belated and half-hearted admission of blood doping. It cost him millions on Wednesday October 17, 2012 when eight of his sponsors dropped him simultaneously. In fact, Mr. Armstrong is facing lawsuits for fraud from some of his former sponsors [4] to recover their investments in his notoriety. Marion Jones denied her steroid use for seven years right up until the day she entered a guilty plea for perjury and check fraud and started her six-month Federal prison sentence [5]. Ms. Jones went on to be stripped of her five Olympic medals from the 2000 Sydney Games.

What about Tom Brady, the four-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback for the New England Patriots? He has been suspended for four games in the 2015-16 NFL season for allegedly being "generally aware" that two Patriots equipment managers purposefully deflated game balls used in the AFC Championship Game versus the Indianapolis Colts [6]. In addition, the NFL took away the Patriots' 2016 first-round pick and 2017 fourth-round pick and fined the team $1 million. This excerpt from the official investigative report explains: "[An] important consideration identified in the policy is 'the extent to which the club and relevant individuals cooperated with the investigation" [6]. Tom Brady refused to cooperate with the investigation and that proved to be detrimental to his team.

Add this to Mr. Brady's adamant public denial of knowing anything about the deflated balls [7] and the team's written point-by-point admonishment of the details of the official report, the fans and media are still unsure of what really happened and who to believe.

At first the Patriots vowed to appeal the punishments. But after public backlash and backroom negotiations, Patriots owner Robert Kraft announced that the team would accept the penalties (some say with the hopes of receiving a reduced penalty without an appeal) [9]. Mr. Brady has not provided the straight truth, and perhaps he never will.

Despite this, Mr. Brady's merchandise sales have doubled since the "Deflategate" scandal erupted [10] and he hasn't yet lost any endorsement deals while his appeal is under consideration. We shall see if the public's trust in Mr. Brady is irretrievably broken (outside of Patriot-crazy New England) when his legacy is considered.

What is the REAL Cost of a Lack of Trust?

It goes beyond the dollars lost in endorsements to the broken families and friendships, and the derailed careers. The very integrity of our "heroes" and the games they play is called into question. Pete Rose still stands on the sidelines of the game he loved and played well due to his belated admission of gambling on baseball while he managed the Reds. The Steroid Era home run kings have been denied admission to the Baseball Hall of Fame thus far, and perhaps Tom Brady will suffer the same fate. While the lessons of telling the truth when confronted with the hard question: "Did you cheat?" have been lost on some. Others recognize the tremendous damage caused by their actions and answer their teams and fans truthfully. In doing so, they make it possible to earn back some or all of the trust that was once destroyed.

[5] Schmidt, Michael S.; Zinser, Lynn (October 5, 2007). "Jones Pleads Guilty to Lying About Drugs". New York Times. Retrieved2007-10-05.