Growing up playing games and sports, I often heard the opposite: “Cheaters never win.” And I believed it. But the older I got, the more I realized cheaters do win—unless they get caught.
The first time I remember getting caught cheating was when I was ten years old. I didn’t do the cheating, but I bore the brunt of getting caught. I played on a youth baseball team that tied with two others for first place in the league. The first-place team would go on to play in a citywide tournament. But since we had a three-way tie for first and not enough time for a playoff, the league decided to take the five best players from each team to form our tournament entrant. Essentially, then, we were an all-star team. And we played like one. We won our first game, 15 to 1, and our second game, 23 to 0. But a player on our team had a cousin on the team we had walloped 23 to zip, and they got talking. When the tournament officials learned we cheated by forming an all-star team, they disqualified us from further play.
As a ten-year-old, I was devasted. I wanted to win that tournament badly, and we had the team to do it. Never mind that we violated the rules. As I got older and thought back on that team, I realized winning the tournament would not mean much because we had an unfair advantage over the competition. But for many competitive athletes, that doesn’t seem to matter, as cheating means you are more intelligent and, therefore, better than the competition. And so, cheating in sports has been rampant at every level, from youth leagues to high school, college, and professional ranks.
The Dallas Mavericks recently got caught cheating, although they did little to hide what they were doing. The NBA has an anti-tanking rule. The NBA instigated it to keep teams from intentionally losing games to get a higher draft pick. The Mavericks had traded away this year’s first-round draft pick, but it was top-ten protected, meaning, if the team’s lack of success resulted in the Mavericks’ first-round pick being ten or better, the team would keep it. Going into the second to last game of the regular season and still having a chance to be in the “play-in” tournament to make the playoffs, the team’s management decided to “rest” its five best players. A loss would likely ensure the team would finish as the league’s tenth-worst team (and keep their draft pick). The team’s star, Luka Dončić, refused to sit, but the team allowed him to play only the first quarter. And as the game progressed, those Mavericks who played well found themselves sitting on the bench for the second half. When it was all over, the five players on the court were the Mavericks’ five worst players (although they played hard and almost pulled out a win, missing two game-tying three-pointers at the buzzer).
The NBA was not pleased and fined the Mavericks $750,000. That might sound like a lot, but the team’s owner, Mark Cuban, has a net worth is $5.1 billion. How much is five billion? Without considering interest earned or the appreciation of his assets, Cuban could give $100,000 A DAY to charity, and it would take him 137 years to deplete his funds. So, how hurtful was the NBA’s fine of $750,000? Not much. If Cuban’s net worth were only one million (still more than many of us), the penalty would proportionally amount to a measly $150. Who wouldn’t gladly pay that to preserve a top draft pick?
Sports are replete with examples of cheating. Here are a few of the most outrageous—at least where the cheaters got caught:
An investigation of the Houston Astros, who won the 2017 World Series, revealed the team had used technology to steal signs, resulting in their batters knowing what type of pitch the opposing pitcher was about to throw. Although stealing signs is a baseball tradition, using technology crossed the line. As a result, the team’s manager lost his job, and the Astros lost future draft picks. But maybe the worst punishment was that most people (except Astros fans) consider their championship tainted.
Baseball pitchers have a long history of doctoring the baseball to make their pitches move in unusual ways and, therefore, harder to hit. Recently, umpires ejected Mets pitcher Max Scherzer for having a pitching hand that was too sticky. As a result, the league suspended Scherzer for ten games (although, as a starting pitcher, Scherzer will miss only two starts).
In 2007, the NFL caught the New England Patriots videotaping the opposing team’s signals. The league took away its first-round draft pick and fined the Patriots $250,000 and their coach $500,000. In 2015, the NFL discovered the Patriots deflated footballs below league standards during the playoffs, making the balls easier to throw and catch (each team uses its own game balls when on offense). The league fined the Patriots $1 million, took away draft picks, and suspended their quarterback, Tom Brady, for four games (although a judge later overturned his suspension).
During the 2020-2011 NFL season, the New Orleans Saints put “bounties” on opposing players. If their defense injured a specific opponent, the Saints paid its player a bounty. Someone recorded Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams placing a bounty on Minnesota Vikings’ quarterback Brett Favre in the 2011 NFC championship game. The league suspended Williams indefinitely and head coach Sean Peyton for the entire 2012 season.
What did Sean Peyton do for the 2012 season? He returned to Argyle, Texas, and coached his son’s youth football team. It sounds like a perfect plotline for a Disney movie. And that’s what happened. Here are a compilation of scenes from Home Team[i] in which Coach Peyton and his son get to know each other better:
Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France seven times, but officials ultimately stripped him of those titles when they discovered Armstrong had been doping the whole time. He also lost several major sponsorships. One of the best movies about the scandal is The Program.[ii] Here is a terrific scene from the film:
And speaking of doping, many professional baseball players have used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). During the “Steroid Era” (from 1994 to 2004), experts estimate that anywhere from 25 to 80 percent of players used PEDs. Here are some more famous ones: Jose Canseco, Ken Caminiti, Alex Rodriguez, Mark McGuire, Rafael Palmeiro, Jason Giambi, and Manny Ramirez. Others suspected of using PEDs but have denied it include Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Roger Clemens.
Screwball[iii] is an entertaining documentary about the scandal. Here is its trailer:
Spain won the gold medal for basketball at the 2000 Paralympics. But officials later discovered ten of their twelve players had deliberately failed an IQ test, allowing them to play as disabled, even though they were not. So the officials stripped the team of its title and ordered team members to return their medals.
Rosie Ruiz won the 1980 Boston Marathon. Later, officials stripped her of her title when they discovered she left the race, took the subway, then got back into the race miles later. Her time was twenty minutes faster than her previous best. Ruiz continues to deny she cheated.
College sports are big businesses with extreme pressure to recruit the best athletes. And so, not surprisingly, college athletics have historically been cheating hotbeds. Or, as former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian said, “Nine out of ten schools are cheating. The other one is in last place.”
One of the most infamous college football recruiting scandals was the Southern Methodist University’s Mustangs, known as the Pony Express, because they had recruited the best running backs in the nation, Eric Dickerson and Craig James. Or, as they became known, “The Best Team Money Could Buy.” The irony of a school founded by a religion was not lost on me. But it all came tumbling down. Here is the trailer from Pony Excess,[iv] a documentary that follows the rise and fall of SMU’s football program:
W.C. Fields once said, “Anything worth having is a thing worth cheating for.” I believe he was joking, but we all must ask ourselves how important winning is to us. Is it worth destroying our character? I love what legendary college football coach Bear Bryant said about winning and character: “Show class, have pride, and display character. If you do, winning takes care of itself.”
I like what football great Aaron Rodgers said: “Authenticity is everything! You have to wake up every day and look in the mirror, and you want to be proud of the person who’s looking back at you. And you can only do that if you’re being honest with yourself and being a person of high character. You have an opportunity every single day to write that story of your life.”
Each of us looks into the mirror every day. So I hope we take Rodger’s advice to heart.
[i] Home Team:
- Production Companies: Happy Madison Productions and Hey Eddie
- Directors: Charles Kinnane and Danield Kinnane
- Screenwriters: Chris Titone and Keith Blum
- Starring: Kevin James, Taylor Lautner, and Rob Schneider
- Release date: January 28, 2022
[ii] The Program:
- Production Companies: Anton, Momentum Pictures, and StudioCanal
- Director: Steven Frears
- Screenwriter: John Hodge (based on the book by David Walsh)
- Starring: Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, and Guillaume Canet
- Release date: March 18, 2016
- Production Companies: Rakontur
- Director: Billy Corben
- Screenwriters: Billy Corben and David Cypkin
- Starring: Frankie Diaz, Bryan Blanco, and Ian Mackles
- Release date: March 29, 2019
[iv] Pony Excess:
- Production Companies: DLP Entertainment, DLP Media Group, ESPN
- Director: Thaddeus D. Matula
- Starring: Fred Akers, Dick Anderson, and Ken Andrews
- Release date: December 11, 2010