“If you want to win, you’ve got to cheat,” my friend Dale told me.
The moment was spiked with irony, as we were standing outside church, where the minister had just admonished us to be wary of sinning “in little ways.”
Since no lightning bolt came down from above, the conversation continued.
What struck me most was that Dale’s declaration — one shared by many fans I speak with these days — hardly seems debatable.
Pushing the cheating envelope is common, even expected.
Even those who don’t cheat — see the Orioles’ Chris Davis and his 50 home runs — are widely assumed to be wily and deceptive, rather than talented.
Every success comes with an asterisk or a question mark.
Do the wins justify the means?
My friend was talking about NASCAR’s latest debacle. Clint Bowyer’s “unintentional” spin and an uncontested pass by another teammate late at Richmond, Va., on Sept. 7 effectively altered the field for the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, the sport’s final 12 racing showdown.
Dale was lamenting, not condoning, cheating. He was not speaking in absolutes, as in “everybody cheats.” It was more of a resignation that many pro athletes seem to think cheating “in little ways” is a way to get a winning edge.
The issue is about more than Joey Logano passing Jeff Gordon as the final driver to make the elite field. (Note: In response to allegations of race-fixing, NASCAR took the unprecedented step of adding Gordon as a 13th driver in the Chase.)
This is just the latest example of rampant rationalization in big-time sports. The idea that anything goes (as long as you don’t caught) seems to have progressed from the exception to the rule.
Is big-time sports in danger of losing its moral compass? Or in that compass already stuck on true south?
Money, performance-enhancing drugs, bounties, spying, a well-timed crash. How far does it go?
Baseball’s once-brightest star juiced his way to a $270 million contract, and the 2011 NL MVP did the same.
The former Super Bowl champions rewarded headhunting.
A three-time Super Bowl winning coach spied on his rivals.
Cycling’s greatest star ever doped during training and races.
Have we reached the point where anything goes?
Just as important, when will it stop?
As allegations emerged last week about SEC football players taking money from agents as part of a well-orchestrated, multischool network last week, we are far from reversing course.
It’s easy to say this is nothing new. After all, baseball’s Leo Durocher first opined that “nice guys finish last” back in 1939.
Certainly, there have been sad chapters of cheating in each generation, from the Black Sox baseball scandal on. But now I fear we are at a tipping point.
It no longer appears to be the exception for players and coaches to cheat but the expectation. When was the last time you genuinely were surprised by a sports scandal?
Here is the danger in that. If we live in a sports world where cheating — real or perceived — is pervasive, an honest effort no longer is enough. The scales are permanently tilted against those who seek to play with integrity.
Is Dale that far off? If you want to win, do you have to cheat?
I hope not.
But with each revelation, a line that should be black and white is stained gray.
Bob Johnson is a correspondent for the Daily Journal. His columns appear Tuesdays and Fridays. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.