Lance Armstrong: seven-time winner of the Tour de France. Ryan Braun: 2012 National League baseball Most Valuable Player (MVP) award winner. Tyson Gay: three-time Olympic Gold Medal sprinter. Alex Rodriguez: three-time American League baseball MVP.
Each man is a phenomenal athlete but each has been disciplined in recent months for the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). These are just the best-known of dozens of cases of disgraced competitors from track and field, baseball, cycling, and other sports.
Why would elite athletes resort to using banned substances, especially in an era of aggressive drug detection strategies? Like generations of wayward teenagers before them, the accused retort that “everybody’s doing it.” In the words of bicyclist Lance Armstrong, the race was “impossible to win without doping” and he “simply participated in a system.”
Does that mean that cheating is the new normal — not only in sports, but in classrooms, boardrooms, and newsrooms? In his book The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead, David Callahan suggests that, in any segment of society, deceit results when people perceive that the deck is stacked against them and that only an extra turn can make up the difference.
Greed, envy, materialism, inequality, and insecurity spur unethical behavior, Callahan maintains. Adherence to the rules erodes in the absence of accountability, regulation, pro-social peer pressure, and individual morality.
An important aspect of Callahan’s premise is the degree to which media shape our perceptions of the disparities that require deceit and the frequency and rewards of cheating. Fame and fat paychecks go to the winners. Every step in life thus becomes a critical turning point that determines the difference between success and failure — making the traveling team, getting admitted to the best school, scoring well on high-stakes tests, closing the crucial sale. Public attention and admiration get drawn to thewinners — those who do whatever it takes whatever the cost. Implicit in this is an “ends justify the means” mentality.
And even when winners eventually are defrocked as cheaters, amid the disappointment and condemnation are justifications for the misbehavior. Consider the reaction of famed bioethicist Arthur Caplan in defense of Lance Armstrong. “Shouldn’t Armstrong, especially because of the inspiration he is to cancer survivors or anyone on the short end of the advantage stick, get a pass for being no more dirty, but a whole lot better than everyone else in his sport? Armstrong isn’t being investigated as the only cheater. He is in all likelihood just the best, most talented one.”
Small wonder, then, that cheating is taken for granted. What choices do people have if they intend to play by the rules? Let me suggest four options.
1. Find a better benchmark for success. Does it feel good to win if you have to cheat to do it? I haven’t read much about unethical athletes, but I have to wonder about the narratives they create not only to justify winning at any cost, but to derive satisfaction from it. Cheating teams are stripped of championships. Individuals end their hall of fame hopes and go down on the record books with asterisks beside their lifetime statistics. Isn’t dishonest success a pyrrhic victory?
2. If you think everyone is cheating, find new friends. Not everyone cheats. And many clean athletes experience ample success. Rodriguez’s teammate, Mariano Rivera, will retire at the end of the season, having been feted at home and on the road after 19 years in the major leagues. People who conduct themselves with integrity resent those who cheat and their ill-gotten rewards. But no matter how contemptible they find their colleagues’ behavior, people of integrity don’t let it become a reason to join in the fraud.
3. Change the risk-benefit calculus. Make cheating hurt. As long as suspensions and reprimands come after the dishonesty has been rewarded, it will never have a sufficient deterrent effect. As Bob Kravitz wrote in USA Today:
“I’m looking at the PED suspensions for 12 Major League Baseball players, plus the 211 games tossed at Alex Rodriguez, and I’m asking this question: Wouldn’t you cheat, too?
“Before I answer that question in the affirmative, let me toss this out there: If baseball, and all sports, want to put an end to the scourge of performance-enhancing drugs, the unions and the league leadership will agree that a first offense will lead to a lifetime ban in the sport.
“Not 50 games, 100 games on a second offense and a lifetime ban for a third.
“Do it, you’re gone.
“Want to clean up the game? It’s that simple. Because right now, it makes sense to cheat.”4. Find a model of integrity; be a model of integrity. In tests of right and wrong, the “mom test” asks what your mom would do in a given situation or what she would think if she knew what you were doing. No doubt there are some moms (even in youth sports) who will endorse or promote cheating to win. But there will also be parents, coaches, and other role models who know where to draw the line. “No, I will not lie about your age to keep you in Little League.” “Don’t cheat.” “Respect the ref.” Every day brings opportunities to teach integrity and role-model it for others.
Culture is hard — and slow — to change. But before determining that it is futile to resist a cheating culture, consider the advice given by moms over the ages, when told that “everyone is doing it”: If everyone were jumping off a cliff, would you follow them?