Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Raising a Generation of Cheats: the Sports Connection

Insider trading, income tax fraud, adultery, plagiarism, bribery: our society officially condemns all of these, and exacts severe penalties on those who engage in them. They all fall under the general category of cheating, a form of dishonesty that allows practitioners to prevail by tactical rule-breaking rather than merit. Yet there is substantial evidence that young Americans will be bringing into the culture a very forgiving attitude toward cheating. Surveys of MBA students, college students and high school students all tell similar tales: between 50% and 70% admit to cheating, and like numbers find nothing wrong with it. Why? They regard it as a “real world” skill, says Rutgers professor Donald McCabe, who performed one of the depressing studies. When the job has to get done, cheating is culturally acceptable, and better yet, it works. But how can they think that, when, for example, 38 first year Duke MBA students are facing severe punishment for cheating on a take-home exam?

Why, sports, of course! The cultural 800 pound gorilla that both reflects the culture and dominates it, especially for men under the age of 30, which not so coincidentally is also the group most likely to cheat. What do our sports teach our young about cheating? A lot:

  • Cheating is profitable. With all the controversy swirling around Barry Bonds as he drives towards the all-time baseball home run record, and all the leaked court documents that make it near-certain that he has inflated his achievements by using banned performance-enhancing drugs, he is rich, he is successful, and he is a celebrity. And cheating helped make him all three. The lesson is hard to miss.

  • Cheating is no big deal. The World Series of Poker ruled last month that it will not penalize reigning champ Jamie Gold for cheating during the 2006 WSOP Main Event. In a recent interview, Gold told The New York Times that he exposed a hole card to an opponent during one hand. The officials concluded, essentially, that it was old news, and that there was no reason to penalize a player for a cheating incident that was over and done with. “Not only were we impressed with Jamie’s candor and contrition, but we also recognized that tournament officials didn’t witness the incidents or take appropriate action at the time of the rules infractions,” said Jeffrey Pollack, who runs the World Series of Poker. “We share culpability in this case and are satisfied that the actions in question were inadvertent mistakes. We look forward to Jamie’s participation in the 2007 WSOP.”

    Think about that for a moment. A poker organization, one which oversees a game that has become a campus favorite and a TV ratings champ with high school and college students, has declared that a past history of cheating shouldn’t be held against a player in future competitions. Moreover, it says that the organization is partly responsible because it didn’t catch the cheating when it occurred! This approach expresses a bizarre and insidious view of cheating as just something people do sometimes, like burping or passing gas, and not really a black mark against their integrity. Remember, this is in poker…you know, that game they played in old Westerns where the gambler caught cheating was generally shot? And how could the WSOP be “satisfied” that the actions were “inadvertent mistakes”? How does a player show his cards to one opponent (and not the others, essentially giving that player an unfair advantage) inadvertently? If Gold didn’t know he did it, how was he able to tell the New York Times about it? Pollack’s statement is nonsense, and intrinsically unbelievable. The message being sent is very simple: “So he cheated. Who cares?”

  • If it’s expected, it’s not cheating. Darrell Waltrip’s crew chief was thrown out of the Indy 500 last year and his team penalized for using something akin to jet fuel in Waltrip’s engine in preparation for the qualifying runs for NASCAR’s big event. But was Waltrip punished? Nope. He raced anyway. Back in 2000, NASCAR fined Jeff Gordon’s crew chief $25,000 for using an illegal intake manifold during a race. Gordon, like Waltrip, was stripped of 100 Winston Cup points, which determine each year’s NASCAR champion, but he raced, he won, and he kept all the prize money, too. Even after it came out he’d been cheating, the victory stood.

    The rationalizers have an argument for this. NASCAR (another very popular sport among young, cheating-susceptible men ) was inspired by the exploits of moonshiners outrunning the law with their illegal rotgut, so cheating is a tradition in the sport, and thus acceptable. The competitors are expected to try to get around the rules, and they do; excessive cheating earns penalties, but nothing major, at least for the drivers.

    Could there be a clearer message for the aspiring entrants to the worlds of business and government? Yes, you may have to be punished if you’re caught, but the benefits of cheating can be so great that it is worth the risk—especially since most of the public won’t think less of you for trying. After all, they’re probably cheaters themselves. And big Darrell Waltrip fans.

Virtually all the commentators on the recent cheating surveys have come to the same conclusion. This is a crisis; the Enron scandal has taught the younger generation nothing, and we are nurturing a bumper crop of cheaters.

Their solution: more ethics courses!

Wrong. Ethics courses have their uses, but students sit through ethics courses only because they have to, and if they manage to stay awake at all, you can bet that their minds are often elsewhere. But they pay attention to sports, and care about them. If our sports continue to teach our children to cheat, it won’t matter that our ethics courses teach them not to.

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