MANCHESTER City’s breach of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations; Saracens’ breach of salary cap rules in rugby; claims of state sponsored doping at various Olympic Games; sign-stealing in major league baseball; technology-enhanced runners trampling all over records in athletics; wrestling with an opponent on a yellow card in order to get them sent off in Gaelic football.
The above examples cross jurisdictions and sports but they all have one thing in common — allegations that those involved broke or bent the rules; that they may have cheated.
As someone who sits on numerous sports disciplinary panels, the essence of most hearings is the sports regulator’s view that the accused cheated and whether this was done accidentally or intentionally ought to determine the severity of the sanction.
It means that in most cases, you hear from both sides as to what happened and how it should be decided upon but rarely is there any reflection on why the athlete behaved as they did. To borrow the language of criminal investigation: while you hear about the means of, and opportunity to, cheat; you rarely hear as to motive.
For many the answer as to why there is cheating in sport prompts an obvious answer — money; the glory or aggrandisement that comes with victory; or the intrinsic competitiveness of those who participate in sport — the win at all costs mentality.
But when you dig a little deeper, the answer reveals a lot more. Indeed, a number of sports organisations globally are now using debriefs from disciplinary processes to identify and prevent future cheating either by amending rules or better educating athletes to protect them from the temptation to cheat or being approached by others to cheat.
In professional sport, it seems self-evident that money, in the form of an enhanced contract or sponsorship etc) is the primary motivation to cheat. As Lance Armstrong, cycling’s greatest doper, put it pithily but accurately: the faster I pedal; the quicker I retire.
In sports, which can be gambled upon, such as horse racing, participants may deliberately dope to secure the prize winnings of a race or deliberately dope to lose a race to win on the betting markets.
Doping remains a scourge for many sports. It looks likely now that thanks to the retrospective testing of samples, we will soon reach the 100 mark in terms of the number of medals initially won at the London Olympics of 2012, but which have since had to be handed back on detection of prohibited substances.
When it comes to doping, cheating athletes simply do the math: they balance the chance of getting caught (according to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s figures, only 1.5% of samples test positive each year) plus the length of a sanction (low to medium; about two years with mitigating circumstances and a good lawyer and keeping in mind the emerging medical evidence that the benefits of some doping substances can last a number of years); against the potential financial rewards that await the undetected but performance-enhanced athlete.
Away from doping for a moment, another interesting, money-related factor that can be found in some of the greatest cheating scandals in sport is where players feel that they are undervalued by greedy owners or that their sport otherwise has grossly inequitable pay structures.
The motivation of the Black Sox players who fixed baseball’s World Series in 1919 was broadly similar to the three Pakistan players who agreed to spot-fix the Lord’s cricket Test against England in 2010. Both sets of players felt that compared to others in their sport, including their immediate opponents, they were chronically underpaid and thus vulnerable to approaches by match fixers.
Similarly, in tennis, which is second only to football in having problems with match-fixing, most fixed games are at lower ranking tour events where the total prize winnings are as low as US$15,000.
In a recent report outlining the vulnerability of tennis players to match fixing, much focus was placed on the fact that while there are nominally about 14,000 professional tennis players worldwide, only the top 250 to 350 players earn enough money to break even.
Another important source of money in elite sport is, of course, government funding. And the pressure to attract and maintain that source has had some negative effects, such as prioritising an athlete’s medal haul over an athlete’s mental health.
This year is the 20th anniversary of one of the most spectacular cheating examples of all in sport and which related, ultimately, to government funding. At the 2000 Paralympic Games, Spain won basketball gold in the classification dedicated to participants with intellectual disability.
Most of the players were not intellectually disabled. The conspiracy was organised by officials seeking increased government funding to feather their own administrative bed; instead, they face criminal fraud charges.
Finally, while money may be the primary motivation to cheat in professional sport, it may also be the chief means of deterring it in the future. Baseball is currently wracked by the fallout from a scam through which the Houston Astros (World Series winners in 2017) illicitly gathered information from opponents allowing their batters to predict what type of ball they may face.
One player, former Toronto Blue Jays’ pitcher Mike Bolsinger, has sued the Astros on the grounds that because of his poor performance against them his contract was terminated prematurely, and his earning power has been adversely affected ever since.
While it’s easy to dismiss Bolsinger’s claim as opportunistic or fanciful, some sports bodies are, through their rules, considering something similar. It is based on seeking financial redress from those who cheated or those who facilitated it (a coach, doctor, etc) or those (such as a national sports federation or doping agency) who negligently stood by.
In the absence of financial settlement, the cheats would remain banned. In this small way, the current cheating equation in sport, which seems titled in favour of the minority who cheat, may tip in favour of the vast majority of athletes who don’t.