Opinion: ‘If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying’

Jaqlynn Tarbell

Is it athletic savvy, or is it just poor sportsmanship?

I was recently introduced to the popular sports saying “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” When I realized it was a legitimate quotation and is commonly referred to today, I was baffled.

If I’m not deceiving others for an (unfair) advantage, I’m not putting forth my best effort? So in other words, “may the best cheater win?”

With recent allegations of cheating and deception (within the NFL specifically) fresh on my mind, I can’t help but wonder how the “win at whatever costs” attitude impacts our level of acceptance of similar behavior in sports and, ultimately, in our daily lives.  It’s condoned by many professional coaches, athletes and fans. Is integrity or morality at all of value within professional sports? Where do we draw the line between what is and is not okay?

Author Kristen Walters makes note of cheating in her book, “The Ultimate Spin.” She provides statements made by sports commentator Phil Taylor regarding the omnipresent cheating within professional sports.

“Cheating is not only accepted in sports; it’s embraced,” Taylor said. “We’ve come to think of deceit as part of the competitive spirit, so that if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying. Whenever a player is described as ‘knowing the tricks of the trade’ it means he knows how to cheat and is admired for it.”

According to Taylor, while some fans may be disappointed in their team(s), others are increasingly willing to “accept the unacceptable” in exchange for exceptional on-field performances.

Furthermore, Taylor makes mention of Sacramento State players blatantly cheating in applying cooking spray on the field right in front of photographers.

“This group of athletes was so accustomed to dishonesty passing for gamesmanship, they did not bother to hide their scheme at all,” Taylor said.

This cooking spray incident recalls football players’ illegal use of adhesive on their gloves to more easily catch balls.

Recently, Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice took to Twitter commenting on his illegal use of “stickum” to help catch footballs during his career.

“I apologize ppl after doing my research about stickum!” Rice tweeted about the incident. “The NFL banned this in 1981. All players did it! #equalplayingfield.”

The statement made by Rice seems nonchalant as if his use of stickum was not a big deal. Claiming all players were doing it suggests using stickum wasn’t providing him a competitive edge over his opponent (or the opposing team), but rather was a means to meet the standard.

The explanation of “everyone doing it” to rectify incidents of cheating has become common. Other athletes (and coaches), including Lance Armstrong, have used similar reasoning behind their use of cheating.

In a recent interview with BBC Sport, Armstrong comments on his performance-enhancing drug use which consequently led to the loss of seven Tour de France titles and a ban from professional cycling for life.

“If I was racing in 2015? No, I wouldn’t do it again. Because I don’t think you have to do it again,” Armstrong said. “If you take me back to 1995, when it was completely and totally pervasive? [I’d] probably do it again.”

Similar to Rice and Armstrong, New England Patriots coach, Bill Belichick made comments during a press conference this past January regarding his decision to film coaching signals during a game against the New York Jets (aka, “spy-gate”).

“So we filmed him taking signals out in front of 80,000 people, like there were a lot of other teams doing at that time, too,” Belichick said. “Forget about that. If we were wrong, then we’ve been disciplined for that.”

Belichick’s statement “if we were wrong” insinuates he believes his (illegal) gamesmanship “strategy” of filming the opposing team was not wrong, in his case at least.

He was penalized with a hefty fine, but clearly the fine did not do its job of punishment or lead to any remorse whatsoever.

Is monetary punishment an effective way to encourage fairness and sportsmanship of professional athletes and coaches? Furthermore, how does their narcissism play into the decision to cheat?

I would suggest most, subconsciously or not, believe rules don’t apply to them (or they are above the law). But are we feeding this faulty belief by being permissive to unethical acts and behavior by athletes—both on and off the field?

The result of the game between the New England Patriots and the Colts during the AFC championship game (a victory for the Patriots of 45-7 on their home field) would suggest they were at a clear advantage and the better team. Why then would they need to play with under-inflated balls (“deflate-gate”) for additional advantage?

Is there more at play with regards to athletes and psychological aspects behind cheating that make deception that much more appealing?

Jason Powers, writer for Psychology Today, questions Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in the “deflate-gate” scandal. He comments on Brady’s unfaltering smile while negating allegations that he was involved in deflating the footballs.

“Was the grin his way of endorsing the rakish sports adage, ‘If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying?’” Powers said. “If the latter explanation is true, Brady would not be alone in the view that trying to gain a competitive advantage, even while violating league—or societal—guidelines, is not such a bad thing. In fact, research has found that running afoul of the rules actually feels pretty good.”

Cheating and deception for competitive advantage will always be an issue when money is involved and as the value of integrity varies between players. It is up to coaches during the developmental years to focus primarily on their role in building character, teamwork and emphasizing integrity as paramount. Coaches at the youth and high school level should focus on embracing the individual skills and talents of players and teamwork over the “big W” (winning).

At the professional level, sports (such as the NFL) should evaluate their rules and regulations and narrow down the most important rules to emphasize (to better level the playing field for all athletes) and provide harsher, more severe punishment (in addition to monetary punishment) for breaking those specified rules.

Furthermore, unethical behavior such as on-field violence and certain cases of unsportsmanlike conduct during game-time should be prosecuted as similar behaviors would be off the field.

Determining the “best athlete” (or “most deserving athlete”) has become more dynamic than it once was in the past.

James Surowiecki, of The New Yorker, wrote about how the past philosophy, “what you are is what you are” has changed into the modern day, “what you are is what you make yourself into.”

“Innate athletic ability matters, but it’s taken to be the base from which you have to ascend,” Surowiecki wrote. “Training efforts that forty years ago would have seemed unimaginably sophisticated and obsessive are now what it takes to stay in the game. Athletes don’t merely work harder than they once did. As Mark McClusky documents in his fascinating new book, ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger,’ they also work smarter, using science and technology to enhance the way they train and perform.”

The line between gamesmanship and cheating is constantly blurred. Although cheaters within sports are often found out, they retain a level of admiration on behalf of fans and spectators.

They often remain some of the most skilled and esteemed athletes in the world—be it through pure athleticism or a problematic void of ethics.