Liars, Cheaters and Thieves in Your Sport: Part II

Is cutting the course wrong if you have no chance at a top finish?

Why would people with so many financial resources want to skirt paying a $5 park entry fee? Why would a so-called "upstanding citizen", a community professional, lie on a race entry form? Though winning is deemed important in society, why would someone lie or cheat to win an insignificant amount of money, a blue ribbon or recognition?

To investigate the answers to these questions, the first thing I did was contact several sports psychologists. I did get great insight from one sports psychologist, but others said they thought the questions were more ethical in nature, rather than behavioral. That lead me to contacting a professor of philosophy. The study of philosophy includes areas such as morals and ethics.

While looking at moral and ethical issues, one of the areas of concern became legality. Are any of the behaviors mentioned in the situations described in Part I of this story illegal? That question led to some digging into rules and regulations, as well as contact with Bob Mionske of BicycleLaw.com.

What did I find?

In short, it's complicated.

Why Cheat?

After I asked several professionals in the world of sports psychology why people would cheat in amateur sports, Kristen Dieffenbach, a sport psychology consultant and assistant professor of athletic coaching education at West Virginia University, replied:

Sports are incredibly important in our current culture. There are huge perceived and real gains at stake for the first across the line. There are financial gains (scholarships, large salaries, endorsements), personal gains (fame, recognition), and cultural gains (celebrity status) that come for the athlete. There are also gains for those associated with the perceived-to-be-winner athlete.

Our culture is very selective about who we anoint. Only the winner, only the top of the podium is "worthy". We focus quite a bit as individuals, and as a culture, on the extrinsic (winning, recognition, bling). Extrinsic goals and outcomes aren't bad; but, when unsupported by intrinsic rewards (personal pride, satisfaction), as they often are in our media and culture, it is a very lopsided equation that leaves people feeling hollow.

The extrinsic outcomes are hard to come by and only one can stand on top of the podium. So when people don't know what the intrinsic things are or how to get them, they focus on what we glorify, the outcome.

There are plenty of documented stories about parents forging birth certifications or lying about a child's age to help their older child appear a little younger and gain an edge in getting scholarships or getting recruited. There are several infamous runners who have circumvented courses to be the first across the line. We have even seen cases of masters athletes, typically aged 30+, lying about their age. Interestingly, some masters athletes "lie down"—claiming they are younger than they are. This is more about vanity because it does not provide a performance advantage.

But, there are athletes who "fudge up" because being the youngest in an older category gives the athlete an edge at winning. If you dig back to the 1936 Olympics (known as the "Nazi Olympics") there are even reports that a German male disguised as a female competed in track and field out of a sense of national pride, so this lying isn't a new phenomenon.

These lies and attempts at deception are about trying to gain a competitive advantage because the outcome is perceived as worth it. Much of the writing about these issues is from the philosophical and ethical sides. People lie and cheat for many reasons. One good example is a sense of entitlement. "I have worked so hard for this, I deserve it, so my actions are OK." People so desperately want the outcome; but feel they shouldn't have to wait (entitlement).

Another example is feeling pressured to lie or cover a lie for others. For example, children know their parents are lying about their (the child's) age, but feel that they must to be loyal to their parents—so they don't say anything.

There are as many reasons that people lie and cheat in sport as there are in the rest of our culture. David Callahan, author of The Cheating Culture, and other authors of similar books discuss the general shift in our culture towards cheating for personal gain and the simultaneous lowering of moral standards.

Sport is no different than other areas of life. There are huge gains that go to first place—hand-in-hand with the media and financial obscurity of anything less.

Entitlement and "Everybody" Does "It"

Yes, reaching the top spot on the podium is very important to some—important enough to cheat or lie.

As I researched this subject and spoke to various people, a shocking number of them told me that "everybody" cheats. Many implied cheating is expected, and it is not that big of a deal. Callahan noted that a 2003 poll found that 95 percent of Americans believe that "other people" cheat on taxes. If everybody does it, then cheating becomes the norm.

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