Is Cheating Good for Sports?

That was the question I found myself asking while reading through the Times sports section in recent days. I understand that we are sort of between seasons here. The Super Bowl is over, baseball has yet to begin, the N.B.A. is slogging through its long wintry slog, and the N.H.L. — well, I’m afraid I just don’t pay attention, as don’t a great many U.S. sports fans.

So plainly, this is not a peak time of year for professional sports. But still: it is noteworthy how many of the articles in the paper have nothing to do with the games themselves, but rather the cheating that surrounds the games. Andy Pettitte apologizes to his teammates and Yankees fans for using HGH, and reveals that his friendship with Roger Clemens is strained … Clemens pulls out of an ESPN event so he doesn’t cause “a distraction” … there are drug-testing articles about Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Tejada, and Eric Gagne.

And that’s just baseball! You can also read about Bill Belichick‘s denial of taping opponents’ practices and the continuing tale of doping cyclists. There are a few N.B.A. articles, too (though nothing lately about refs’ gambling), and soccer (though nothing lately on match fixing), but by and large, the sports section that arrives each morning feels more like a cheating section.

Maybe, however, this is just how we like it. As much as we profess to like the games for the games’ sake, perhaps cheating is part of the appeal, a natural extension of sport that people condemn on moral grounds but secretly embrace as what makes sports most compelling. For all the talk of how cheating “destroys the integrity of the game,” maybe that’s not true at all? Perhaps cheating actually adds a layer of interest — a cat-and-mouse element, a detective-story element — that complements the game?

Also, we love to applaud cheaters who have confessed their ways. Pettitte, for instance, got a hero’s welcome for talking about his HGH mistakes; Clemens, meanwhile, with every further denial seems to be soaking up ill will like a sponge. (Given the reception Pettitte got, I do wonder if Clemens is rethinking his retrenchment strategy; perhaps he will come forward someday and claim that he himself “misremembered” using HGH or steroids.) Just as the theological concept of the Resurrection is so powerful (see Tyler Cowen‘s discussion here of the theology behind Freakonomics, a notion I find flattering, if exaggerated), and just as a harsh winter is followed by an insistent spring, I wonder if our interest in sport too springs eternal, not in spite of the cheating scandals, but because of them?


Cheating articles are good for sports as much as celebrity gossip mags are good for films...I suppose they draw more attention to sports/films, but not the right kind...


Did Pettitte really get a heroes welcome? He certainly won't get one to the Hall.

Cheating is good for sports media, bad for the game.


Odd that you would marginalize hockey, the one sport mentioned in this post that doesn't share the others' cheating troubles.

If you (and the rest of the sports-watching world) gave it a chance, you'd likely find the action captivating, and the players refreshingly human, even down-to-earth. Of course, all this may be due to the lower player salaries which are certainly caused by the smaller fan base..

So on second thought, go right ahead knocking on hockey. That way the tickets will remain affordable, and the players admirable.

Unless of course their last name is Jagr.

David D

ML Harris: Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's record in 1995, and it captured a great deal of attention all by itself.


On an unrelated topic ... does the Times force you to say "N.H.L." and "N.B.A." instead of just "NHL" and "NBA"? Even though it's just a blog?



"If someone is a cheater or otherwise lacks honor, they can expect to be punished on the ice."

I assume by "punished on the ice" you mean getting hit or beat up in a fight. But, wouldn't someone taking steroids or HGH be necessarily bigger and stronger than before, and thus less susceptible to this form of punishment?

the Gooch

What about cheating in N.A.S.C.A.R.?

I think it is the "sport" with the most incentive to cheat (it's not that hard to make your car faster than everyone else's if you bend the rules) and the most thorough testing--the complete inspections of the cars before every race.

I suppose it helps with competitive balance, but I find it stifles innovation and makes the competition boring.

Thomas B.

"I suppose it helps with competitive balance, but I find it stifles innovation and makes the competition boring."

I completely agree.

If there were more Eddie Gaedels and fake timeouts*, I'd watch sports all the time. But it seems like any time anyone tries to do something clever, all the jocks get antsy, as if everyone with a good idea is supposed to just stick to chess.

But this isn't just about clever tricks versus getting other advantages to improve the sport, The Gracie family, who were all of slight build, had to invent a new type of competition to prove that their family's fighting style could easily beat heavyweight competitors. Constrained competitions based on "levelling the playing field" prevent us from seeing these extraordinary triumphs of human achievement.

Gould's comments on the history of Baseball in "Full House" seem to suggest it'd probably be okay if we let enhancements slip in, if anything, we'd probably improve the sport if we required every team to be consisted of half amateurs and half super-human steroidal monstrosities. Sports are more interesting when there's more variance in ability, we've lost a lot of that variance over time.


Van B.

Well, the cheating stories are better than watching ESPN's "Greatest Highlight with Chris Berman" or anything with Stuart Scott so I give them two Big Injection Needles up.

Jim Strathmeyer

"If you're not cheating you're not trying"

Ah, the philosophy of my middle school football coach who sprayed stick-em on our hands. Guess what he's doin' now? He's a middle school football coach. Think about it.

Kenneth W. Regan

The two difference-makers I think are (1) where is the line between cheating and gamesmanship, and (2) is the cheating /colorful/ without being /degrading/.

My line in (1) is straddled by (a) the home side "doctoring the pitch" in cricket---that's cricket; (b) prompting the "12th man" by PA system to disturb the visitors' signal-calling---maybe overdoing it?; (c) timing the air-system fans in the Metrodome to favor the Vikings---probably not. And compare (d) trying to steal signs with your eyes in baseball---"part of the game"; (e) stealing signs with a center-field camera as alleged with the 1951 Giants---maybe not; (f) videotaping a captive opposing team---definitely not.

Regarding (2), junking up a baseball passes because it goes with the personalities of some pitchers and isn't so manifestly unfair---indeed it's "equal opportunity". It's not out-of-bounds like using technology that's foreign to a game, or a total degrading of the sport's point as with cheating by computer at chess. HGH and steroids are also degrading in that they do harm to bodies and tread on the social contract. But tech in sailing is totally in-bounds, with the rules there to be tested, and if you've got something up your keel, the publicity is great!


brian s.

watch some hockey already. the NBA is absolutely horrible, and while a significant plurality are viewed to have probably cheated in baseball, the same can't be said of the NHL.


I have also heard that some professional wrestling matches have been fixed.


Cheating is not good for sports. Cheating is bad for sports. In fact, cheating is bad for society.

Why would I make such a broad statement? Because underneath every offer and every agreement is the basic foundation of trust. The electric company trusts us to pay our bills. The government trusts us to pay our taxes. We trust people to pay us for products or services we provide. Without that trust, agreements that should be worthwhile are made worthless. And that is being seen across the board in society now, from failing marriages to failing mortgages.

That is why professional sports need to be held to a higher standard. In an increasingly diverse world, the NBA, MLB, NFL, and the NHL have remained as four major commonalities among the American populace. If the heroes of those games are allowed to cheat, and escape with only a wink and a weak apology, it sends a dangerous message that the real world, like the sports world, should be run without consequences. Then what is to stop the CEO from cheating on environmental regulations and dumping toxins into the environment? What is to stop the husband from cheating on his wife? Why spend time raising your kids when you can take "shortcuts"?

Cheating is bad for sports, and there needs to be consequences.



You confuse fakery and legal deception with illegal actions. We LOVE it when the 2nd baseman dekes the runner into thinking that the ball is on its way and so he must slide - though the ball is in the outfield and the runner should be rounding 2nd and heading for 3rd. Professionals who are artful feinters are highly regarded because it takes great poise in the heat of battle. But who thinks that what Bobby Bonds did is good for the game or his own fate? Who in retrospect appreciates what Mark McGwire did? Sports cease to exist without the tension of rules-creativity that makes it so much fun.


While CONTROVERSY may be good for sports--along with Cinderella seaons, Underdogs from out of nowhere, good versus evil, record-setting, and making history--cheating is not...unless it serves to cause us to become serious about ending cheating.

I'm not saying that the controversy of cheating might not attract more attendance and attention, but so would having nude cheerleaders or playing with a lethal, randomly exploding football (hey!). Shoot, we could even conduct public executions of the losing team's coach (talk about an incentive to win!). But I think most of us would agree that these things (with the exception of nude cheerleaders), no matter how much attention they attract, are both ignoble and unworthy and are not of any ultimate good for the game.

The very ideal of sport is that it be fair. That's the whole meaning behind "sporting chance," after all. I mean, this is why we have weight-classes in boxing, so that some 115 pound boxer doesn't have to take on Tyson.

Again, cheating may draw attention, but that is not a good in itself. Ideally, cheating should attract corrective authority...and should finally go away forever so that we can truly enjoy our sports.



Tennis is having its own problems with match fixing; apparently players are being approached by gamblers to lose on purpose. Davydenko has been dragged through the mud for allegedly throwing a match.

And hazbin, you mean Barry Bonds not Bobby Bonds.

Charles D

This is short term vs long term results. Short term I do love reading about the cheating articles, but long term I lose respect for the game. If this because something that happened every year I would absolutely hate sports.

I do think I've cared more about the Bonds and Clemens trials than who won the BoSox winning the World Series. So if baseball, not my favorite spectator sport, had tons of reading material about cheating while football, my favorite spectator sport, was kept clean I would be happier overall with sports.

Mike B

I totally agree. As my friend once said, "Cheaters always win, if they don't get caught, and winners don't get caught cheating." I believe that some other wise person once said that going outside the rules isn't cheating, but merely changing the conditions of the test.


It boils down to what we learn as kids:

Cheating is good... (record sales, superstars, lots of money to be made)

Getting caught cheating is not good....

But in this day and age, apologies go too far and punishment not far enough. Pete Rose is formally banned for life, but drug users essentially walk... Left to the voters as to whether or not they are HOF worthy.