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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?