Cheating bothers us, but not enough to walk away from the games

We're in a complicated relationship with the athletes we love.

They're cheating on us. We know it. We don't like it. Yet we keep coming back to them.

We'd like them to do better. We'd like to trust them completely. We'd like those golden moments of ecstasy and awe at the stadium not to be sullied by nagging doubts about the performers' fidelity. But even if they don't change their ways, we'll always be there for them.

That's the message SportsNation has broadcast in its collective response to our ESPN.com poll on cheating in sports. Though the poll was unscientific, the results show that we're suspicious, jaded, jaundiced, pessimistic and deeply disapproving of rule breakers. Meanwhile, we're spending more money than ever going to cheer on many of those same cheaters.

Nobody ever said love was logical.

A huge majority of us (80 percent) believe pro sports leagues will not be able to rid their games of cheating in the near future. A majority of us (53 percent) believe college sports are tainted by "a good number of top programs" paying players and fixing grades. A sizable minority of us (47 percent) believe there is a "sizable minority" of cheaters in sports -- not just an isolated rogue athlete here or there. And a plurality of us (44 percent) believe there is significantly more cheating now than 20 years ago.

But do you see any kind of mass revolt by fans demanding a cleanup? Anyone boycotting the ballpark? Not according to attendance figures pretty much across the landscape of major sports.

We're too emotionally invested to pull out. We love the great performances too much. We want to believe in the 70-homer season, the 40-year-old Olympic swimmer, the world-record sprinter. Sometimes, we want to believe it too much.

Maybe that willingness to suspend disbelief is why athletes always plead their innocence despite evidence to the contrary. They figure we'll buy anything.

Sammy Sosa's corked bat was for batting practice only -- it was an honest mistake that it wound up in his hands in a real game. He'd never do that on purpose. Trust him.

Floyd Landis and Rafael Palmeiro say the positive steroid tests have unfairly besmirched their credibility. How they happened to test positive in the first place? No idea. Trust them.

Tennis player Nikolay Davydenko is, according to his agent, "flabbergasted" by allegations that he dumped a match last week that just happened to have a suspiciously massive influx of money bet on his opponent, Martin Vassallo Arguello, even after Davydenko won the first set. Davydenko cited injury when he retired in the third set. Trust him.

We've always talked a good game about wanting our athletes to be fair and honorable. We grew up believing in the virtue of sport, and in the importance of competing the right way. Winners never cheat, and cheaters never win, right?

But we don't always vote the straight purity ticket with our wallets. We like home runs, no matter how freakishly large the guy who's hitting them. And we like the shooting guard with NBA range, no matter how much money it took to get him on campus or what strings were pulled to get him a qualifying SAT score.

We still show up to cheer for the tainted, still buy their jerseys. We still want to believe the best about our heroes -- even while we're eager to believe the worst about our no-class rivals.

College sports fans specialize in that sort of selective suspicion. The school down the road must be offering $50 handshakes and finding friendly professors for its players. Meanwhile, our scholar-athletes are high-character kids in it for the love of the game and their school. (Either that, or we just pray that our kids don't get caught.)

That selective suspicion carries over to international competition, as well. We once fixated on East German, Russian and Chinese dopers in the Olympics, then were shocked when sweet-smiling Marion Jones wound up hip-deep in BALCO. The Tour de France is absolutely rife with dopers -- but anyone who suggests Lance Armstrong doped is clearly an anti-American snob who can't handle having a Yank dominate a European sport.

Those attitudes aren't likely to change anytime soon. Neither is the cheating climate in sports.

The SportsNation belief that cheating is significantly more prevalent today than 20 years ago should surprise anyone who remembers the juiced-up '80s, with Brian Bosworth, Ben Johnson and female Eastern Bloc Olympians the size of NFL linebackers. It might show the age of our respondents, or it might indicate how much more we hear about cheating in all its forms. We now live in a world without many secrets.

Fact is, there wasn't much media coverage of the swimmers in Amsterdam who were charged with taking stimulants before their races. That was in the '60s. The 1860s.

Long before Tim Donaghy became part of the national sporting lexicon, we had point-shaving scandals at CCNY, Kentucky, Boston College, Tulane and Arizona State. And those are just some of the ones we know about.

Long before we had Barry Bonds' hat size to wonder about, we had an offensive tackle named Tony Mandarich who was 6-foot-6, 310 pounds and ran a 4.65-second 40-yard dash. Mandarich's measurables seemed about as likely as a guy naturally hitting 73 home runs at age 38. (In a glorious little coincidence, Bonds' 755th home run Sunday came off Clay Hensley, a pitcher who was suspended for 15 minor league games in 2005 after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance.)

And long before football coaches covered their mouths with play sheets to foil lip readers, teams were stealing each other's signals. Former Arkansas coach and outgoing athletic director Frank Broyles told me this spring that he and Texas icon Darrell Royal once confessed to pirating play calls from one another in the 1960s.

So scamming in search of a competitive edge has been going on for a while now. It's an undeniable part of human nature.

But a certain hierarchy of what's tolerable and what's intolerable has evolved, as evidenced by our poll.

In retrospect, most in-game cheating is viewed with a wink, a nod -- even a chuckle. Broyles and Royal can laugh about their espionage now. Spitball pitchers are considered a colorful part of the game. Same with floppers and shorts pullers in basketball, stick benders in hockey, and offensive linemen who specialize in holding.

Those aren't so bad because there are officials in place to detect that kind of cheating, after all. You just hope none of them is named Donaghy.

Only 14 percent of fans say in-game cheating bothers them most. Eighty percent say it's the off-field cheating -- drug taking, point-shaving, etc. -- that is the real threat.

That's why a first-time offender caught cheating during play merits a short suspension, according to 54 percent of those polled. A first-time blood doper or steroid user merits a long suspension, according to 61 percent of respondents. And a first-time point-shaver deserves a lifetime ban, according to 69 percent of SportsNation.

For the most part, we believe in the ideal of purity in our sports. And we believe in punishment for crimes committed against our sports.

But we're in love, and we don't really want to know the full extent of the current crime wave. Even if it's as bad as we suspect, we're not packing up and leaving the cheaters anytime soon.

Pat Forde is a national columnist for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.