Perhaps the answer to cheating lies within each of us

The concept was to start a conversation, to present a hypothesis, support it with facts and ask SportsNation how it felt about the past, present and future of cheating in sports.

We suggested the issue wasn't so much about Justin Gatlin, Shawne Merriman, Michael Waltrip or anyone else who has blurred the ethical lines in sports over the past year but rather was about us, the fans and how much more cheating we're willing to tolerate.

Hundreds of readers sent e-mails or participated in an ESPN Conversation; thousands more answered our SportsNation polls. They covered nearly every perspective, unveiling the same passion they have when supporting their favorite teams.

Some readers insisted we just accept the idea that cheating is part of sports and move on.

"It's not gonna stop," commented Phattboycmb. "And for everyone that stops watching, there's another person buying their 4-month-old a Carolina blue onesie. Cheating is a reality."

Some suggested they have been so turned off by a perceived lack of integrity in sports that they no longer can stand to watch.

"These people are no longer interesting," Laynebell commented in an ESPN Conversation. "I've canceled my cable, picked up my glove and walked out the back door to play catch with my boys. And I don't miss the big boys one bit."

And some actually supported cheaters.

"You have to respect someone so driven that they are willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to be successful," commented goblue3509. "Maybe some of the overweight population should take a page from Barry [Bonds] and Merriman's book and sacrifice a little to get in shape."

There were those who praised the conversation we were trying to have but hundreds of others who despised it. Much of the criticism was directed toward the media and ESPN specifically. The network has played a key role in the growth of sports and the glorification of home runs, slam dunks and the ever-blurring line between sports and entertainment. That type of sports coverage, some people argued, has led to this me-first, cheating-is-acceptable sports culture.

"If the fans are the fire, then ESPN is the fuel," suprman05kc commented. "It isn't just about sports anymore. It's about fame and stardom and making the eye-popping dunk or hitting the tape-measure home run.

"Everyone wants to be a star and everyone wants to be rich. This glamour-filled existence is played before our very eyes each day on ESPN. It is my contention that the beginning of the end of sports began when ESPN was born."

Then there were those who thought the entire topic was overblown, that cheating is no worse now than it ever was. They rambled that this was nothing more than "ESPN's relentless pursuit of tabloid journalism," while insisting that ESPN never covers the positive stories. [Apparently, they missed colleague Gene Wojciechowski's late July column or our Emmy-winning series of stories on the Barrow Whalers.]

Hal Bialeck of North Carolina wasn't nearly as venom-filled. He merely suggested that the 24-hour news cycle and the growth of all types of media in recent years have played a role in making issues such as cheating in sports seem worse than they truly are.

"If you had intense media coverage of the lives of everyday adults, you find a skeleton with almost everyone," he wrote. "That is not to say that everyone is bad, but the media must acknowledge their role in this. Athletes, after all, are human."

Other readers pointed the finger at society as whole. They noted the questionable ethics of our political, corporate and, in certain cases, religious leaders. They asked who are we to question the integrity of our athletes when we speed on the interstate, cheat on our taxes and falsify our résumés?

"There's no personal responsibility in this country anymore," one anonymous reader commented. "It's now do as you please and deny, deny, deny when you get caught. Truth and accountability have gone completely out the window. It's a sickening day in America."

For those who buy into an escalation of cheating in sports, it falls on us to figure out what to do about it. The answer depends on whom you ask. It's a fair assumption that money is at the core of the problem. Athletes simply have too much to gain and not enough to lose.

Is part of the solution to make cheating so financially painful that it changes that balance? How far should we go in punishing cheaters? Would a zero tolerance policy for athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs or bet on sports do the trick?

Some think so.

"No B.S. four-game suspensions, no second or third strikes. If you get caught you are banned for life," one anonymous reader wrote. "Instead we are left with the disturbing conclusion that the leagues simply don't care about the integrity of their games."

Added reader BlueeyesNJ: "I know if I get caught cheating in school, I get expelled. If I cheat on the job, I get fired. I bet if those extremes applied to sports we wouldn't be having this conversation."

There were even a few outlandish ideas, such as the one from reader Squaregeiz, who suggested we blow up sports and start over. Before anyone would be allowed into the new regime, he wrote, they would be forced to pass a drug test conducted by an independent oversight committee.

"Sure, the next few years of major sports would suck," Squaregeiz wrote. "But it would be worth it in the end."

But perhaps commenter mvsimmons told the best tale of all, insisting that the individual decision to cheat lies within each of us. He said he was a college wide receiver in 1990 when he watched one of his teammates go from a 220-pound wannabe linebacker to a 250-pound "manimal." When another teammate offered him Dianabol, an anabolic steroid, he accepted. That night, he popped his first pill and had the most intense workout of his life. Then the guilt hit him.

"What about all of those guys who did things the right way," mvsimmons wrote Thursday. "If no one ever cheated and every accomplishment was a true testament of a man's ability to reach the highest levels -- assisted by nothing but his or her own blood, sweat and tears -- how much more would it mean to reach those levels?"

The next night, he gave the bottle of steroids back to his teammate.

"I didn't explain myself. I didn't judge him," he wrote. "I just said no."

So, what do we make of all this? Maybe it is nothing more than an overhyped media circus. Maybe stories such as these accomplish nothing more than making the problem seem worse than it is.

Or, as David Callahan -- author of the book "The Cheating Culture" -- would insist, maybe the integrity that seems to be leaking out of sports simply mirrors the ongoing erosion of ethics in our society.

When I think back to my childhood and reflect on the lessons that Little League and Biddy Basketball taught me, when I reflect on the posters of Michael Jordan and Walter Payton on my bedroom wall, perhaps the greatest gift that sports gave me was the ability to dream. In my driveway, I could nail a fadeaway jumper just like MJ. In my backyard, I could soar over the goal line, just like Payton.

And now when I look at the innocent face of my 5-month-old daughter, I want sports to help her dream, too. I don't want her to see the greatest home run hitter in baseball history and question whether he was a cheat. I'd rather she not watch a suspiciously officiated NBA playoff game and instantly think the fix is on. And God forbid she look at any future female sports stars and just throw her hands up because she doesn't have their chemist.

Sure, maybe we're making way more of this than we need to. Maybe this is nothing more than a bump in the road, a mere blip on the sports radar. But maybe, in a darker sense, this is the inevitable path sports is headed down. And if that is the case, isn't it worth fighting?

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.