There's great incentive for athletes to cheat   

Updated: February 16, 2007, 12:48 PM ET

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Consider the following scenario:

Football players are not allowed to move beyond the line of scrimmage until the ball is snapped. Some coaches encourage their players to cross the line of scrimmage a fraction of a second before the ball is snapped. Officials might have difficulty seeing the early movement, therefore, the team has a distinct advantage compared to its opponents.

Is this a) astute strategy, or b) bending the rules?

Not sure? Try this one:

Shawne Merriman

Otto Greule/Getty Images

Why is Barry Bonds vilified, while Shawne Merriman is celebrated?

During the double play in baseball, players must tag second base before throwing to first. However, some players deliberately fake the tag to deliver a quicker throw to first base. Pretending to tag second base is justified because it is a good strategy. Besides, it's the umpire's job to call an illegal play.

Is this a) smart baseball or b) cheating?

Long before an athlete is asked whether he or she would take human growth hormone, he or she usually is taught how to respond to the above situations, which show the ultra-thin line between gaining an edge and cheating.

Sharon Stoll, a noted sports ethicist, has taken the ethical temperatures of more than 70,000 athletes nationwide. What she has uncovered is what headlines tell us almost every day. Most athletes possess very poor ethics.

Just look at this week alone. Michael Waltrip had his car confiscated and saw his crew chief and competition director suspended indefinitely for using an illegal fuel additive. An angry father upset at his son's loss threw his son's wrestling opponent off the mat at a youth match in Aurora, Ill.

Sports is becoming a haven for cheaters -- and this goes beyond just steroids and baseball. We should have known things were bad last December, when a chess player was banned for 10 years after he was caught using his mobile device to win games.

Everything in Stoll's research suggests morality in competition only will continue to decline. It won't be long before someone figures out how to use text messaging to cheat at Uno.

"In contact sports, it's the lowest we've seen," said Stoll, a University of Idaho professor who runs the Center for Ethical Theory and Honor in Competitive Sports (ETHICS).

Twenty years of research has shown Stoll that athletes need to be taught ethics with the same diligence that they learn their playbooks.

Some of them just don't know right from wrong. If they do, they discover quickly that in sports, the wrong choices are rewarded just as much as the right ones.

It's a telling coincidence that as the smoke cleared from the Waltrip cheating scandal, Barry Bonds signed a one-year deal worth $15.8 million with the San Francisco Giants. If that's the spoils of cheating, why would any athlete dare cease?

The problem is that a hard-line stance toward cheating would mean ridding sports of the competitive advantages that have, for years, been romanticized as traditions. It would mean no more scuffed baseballs, teaching offensive linemen how to hold without getting caught, and ending fighting in hockey -- all those little things that for years have not only helped our favorite athletes and teams win games, but upped the entertainment value of sports.

"The problem with athletes or any competitive population," Stoll explained, "is ferreting out the relationship between what we do to what we should do."

For years it's been ingrained in athletes that small-time cheating is fine. So it's no wonder that many of them ultimately engage in big-time cheating.

Think about this: Doctors, lawyers, even journalists, all are forced to adhere to, acknowledge and learn about ethics. But what about athletes? Who teaches them to be ethical? You could say coaches, but many of them struggle with ethics, too. You could say parents, but the Illinois father gone wild shows that's no safe bet, either.

Besides, as much as the public complains about the behavior of professional athletes, we are terribly inconsistent about how we feel toward cheating in sports.

Plenty of lip service is given to steroids and performance-enhancing drugs. Some of the same people who vilify Bonds have no problem with Shawne Merriman playing in the Pro Bowl, or that Waltrip qualified all three of his Toyotas for Sunday's Daytona 500. Bring up the pursuit of the all-time home run record and the screaming begins. Talk about jet fuel in a car engine and the room is strangely quiet.

"Part of it has to do with a lack of seriousness toward sport," Stoll said. "I know that sounds ridiculous, but we don't expect (athletes) to think deeply about ethics."

We should. But most of us are willing to sacrifice entertainment for ethics. As long as that's the case, cheating is where some athletes will continue to excel.

Jemele Hill, a Page 2 columnist and writer for ESPN The Magazine, can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.


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