As disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong flirts with coming clean about steroids to Oprah and ostensibly all-time greats Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are shut out of the baseball Hall of Fame, the issue of "cheating" has become ubiquitous in sports. Everyone seems disgusted by cheating -- unless it's a different form of cheating which is actually coached, encouraged, applauded and talked about as an integral part of the game.
"If you ain't cheatin,' you ain't tryin'," is an old adage in sports which some attribute to the great Richard Petty, a man so revered he is nicknamed 'The King.' That statement alone fuels an ongoing permissive attitude on cheating in sports, as long as it's not steroids.
"Cheating refers to an immoral way of achieving a goal, generally used to... gain advantage in a competitive situation," wrote Justin Caouette, a PhD student at the University of Calgary's philosophy department. With that as a backdrop...
When an offensive lineman obviously holds a defensive player during a passing play, which is against the rules, and doesn't get caught, the announcers inevitably say, "It's not holding if you don't get caught!" And then chuckle together as if they invented the line, which I'm pretty sure was used by Ronald Reagan when he was doing play-by-play radio broadcasts before his acting and political careers respectively.
Or an act so egregious as taping the opponent's practice sessions in pro football to help your team win the Super Bowl three times and the consequence is to be labeled a genius (who knew Thomas Edison had so much competition as a genius simply in the sports arena?).
A basketball player flopping to draw a foul is cheating to gain an advantage. They are clearly fooling the official into making the wrong call, which can impact the outcome of a game. That's cheating. However, the announcers always applaud the play and label the player "smart" and add a hacky line about the player winning an Academy Award for their performance (as an aside: can these uncreative, fossilized, play-by-play analysts please update who to use as an example of great acting... someone besides Laurence Olivier?).
Flopping is reaching soccer-like levels (that is another level of cheating all-together) which compelled the NBA to announce a new anti-flopping rule recently that begins with a warning and moves quickly to major fines. Good for the game right? However, the NBA Players Association is not happy from a collective-bargaining standpoint and is set to file a grievance with the league.
Youth coaches have admitted to teaching young players how to flop and hold to gain an advantage and fool the officials. This behavior is accepted for some reason but when someone mentions steroids, especially in baseball, there was more outrage from Congress, the press and general public than I remember over genocide in Rwanda. Since we're on the subject of baseball, let's take a look at how they have handled cheating prior to last week's excommunication of steroid users.
The Hall of Fame is littered with plucky managers who stole signs as part of their strategy such as Hall of Fame player-manager Rogers Hornsby who actually wrote an article title "You've Got to Cheat to Win." Corked bats and scuffed balls have been tools to get into the Hall. And let's not forget admitted spit-baller Gaylord Perry who won 314 times and struck out over 3,500 batters yet was welcomed into the Hall of Fame to mass winking and even had the temerity to write, "I became an outlaw in the strictest sense of the word -- a man who lives outside the law, in this case the law of baseball." Perry isn't Christy Mathewson who threw the spitball over century ago before it was made illegal. Most give Mathewson a pass since the spitball wasn't illegal in his day.
Timing is also interesting in the steroid era. Admitted steroider Mark McGwire admitted to using androstenedione after famously playing dodgeball during a Congressional hearing. Andro was legal and sold over the counter when he used it. Yet he is being denied entry into the Hall of Fame. Others, like Bonds, Clemens and even Mike Piazza who was the greatest hitting catcher of all time is being kept out simply for playing during the steroid era. Bad actors don't deserve great stages, but baseball and sports overall needs to be consistent.
Steroids will keep players out but all is forgiven when locker rooms in the '60s provided greenies, bennies, black beauties and other forms of amphetamines the way dressing rooms provided M & M's (sans brown) to Van Halen in the '70s and '80s. Jim Bouton's seminal book Ball Four named Hall of Famers and their need for stimulants to get through a long, hot season. "Amphetamines have been around the game forever," said Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt in his book Clearing the Bases. When Major League Baseball finally chose to act against amphetamines in 2006, past players must have chortled since they popped pills with impunity. And now there's an Adderall-usage issue for players who gain an advantage by being able to better focus during all the distractions of a season and a game. Yes, the same ADHD medicine kids are prescribed after extensive examinations to be able function in classrooms.
Since I mentioned kids, what are we telling young people about cheating? Are we saying that the act of cheating depends on how it's defined or accepted by authority? That cheating depends on how it's perceived? I'm a firm believer that what we learn as kids with sports manifests itself into other areas of life from traffic violations to financial malfeasance which will land someone in prison and not simply being kept out of the Hall of Fame.
My role model Dr. Pedro Jose Greer once told me that "Integrity is what you do when no one is looking." In sports, many players actually have EVERYONE looking at them and with slow-motion replay available and continue to cheat at every turn.