Commentary

Are sports heading toward 'major crash' because of cheating?

Originally Published: August 9, 2007
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

The 9-year-old girl hops up on the couch and asks her dad to teach her about sports. Side-by-side one night, they watch "SportsCenter."

The first story is about Barry Bonds. So the little girl asks about home runs, steroids and why anybody cares whether the man they call the commissioner is at the game. Dad answers, explains and moves on.

The next story is an update on Tim Donaghy. And the girl has more questions. She wants to know about gambling, game fixing, officiating and what the man on television means by "integrity."

Some 30 minutes after this sports lesson began, Haley Gion is spent. She climbs down, shakes her head and heads upstairs for bed. She has yet to learn about Brandi Chastain's World Cup goal, Kirk Gibson's one-legged World Series home run or Jerome Bettis' long-awaited conquering of the Super Bowl. But she knows all about illegal drug use, gambling, federal indictments and cheating.

[+] EnlargeHaley Gion and Dave Gion
Dave GionHaley Gion sat down with her father, Dave, to watch TV and learn about sports. What she got was a lesson on cheating and controversies.
Thank you, sports.

"About the only thing we didn't touch on was a big sex scandal," says her dad, 38-year-old Dave Gion from West Des Moines, Iowa. "But with sports, it's probably just a matter of time."

Read the Olympic Charter. Thumb through the mission statement for Little League Baseball, or log on and read the NCAA mission statement. Nowhere do you come across "cheating," "cutting corners" or "winning at all costs." Instead, the manifestos are littered with words such as "respect," "dignity," "character" and "courage." There are phrases like "ethical principles" and "the joy of effort." These are the pillars upon which competitive sports are supposed to stand.

Yet here we are today -- an NBA referee is about to be indicted for his alleged involvement in fixing games. Baseball's home run king is a man who will spend the rest of his life as the face of the sport's steroids era. While 2006 Tour de France winner Floyd Landis continues to fight doping allegations, riders and teams were booted from this year's race -- even after signing prerace anti-doping pledges. And German doping scientist Werner Franke is calling Alberto Contador's Tour victory, "the greatest swindle in sporting history."

In tennis, the ATP is investigating suspicious gambling activity around Nikolay Davydenko's Aug. 2 match with Martin Vasallo Arguello after an online British gambling company received 10 times the normal wagers on the match. That prompted top American doubles player Bob Bryan to tell the L.A. Times this week that men's tennis players have been the target of anonymous requests to fix matches for money.

Share Your Views

The epidemic of cheating in sports isn't so much about the athletes, coaches, commissioners or even sportswriters who let it happen. It's about the fans.

How much more can you take? You've read the stories and answered the polls, and now it's time to let your voice be heard.

Join the ESPN Conversation and tell us what you think about the past, present and future of cheating in sports. Maybe you think we're overreacting. Maybe you think Barry Bonds should go to jail. Maybe you think professional sports needs to adopt a zero tolerance policy.

We want to hear your thoughts, ideas and emotions. Selected comments will be included in a Friday story that will conclude Cheat Wave '07.

And those are just the headlines from the past month. Let's not forget that the Boston Marathon questioned the finish of 29 runners this year. NASCAR has levied more fines and suspensions in 2007 than ever before -- one for a suspicious substance believed to be jet fuel. San Diego Chargers Pro Bowl linebacker Shawne Merriman was suspended four games last season for steroids. A recent search into the barns of a Keeneland horse trainer turned up cobra venom, a forbidden substance used to block pain in a horse's joints, according to the Daily Racing Form.

And for those who chuckled at Gary Player's assertion that performance-enhancing drugs are invading golf, an Italian golfer was suspended recently after testing positive for a drug often used to mask steroid use.

Cheating in sports is nothing new -- the day humans first discovered athletic competition, we began seeking an easier way to win. It's human nature. And in today's world, with money, fame and so much more to gain, it shouldn't come as a surprise that individuals are manipulating birth certificates, sticking themselves with needles and bending seemingly any rule they can get away with in order to win.

Cheating comes in many forms. There's the innocent gamesmanship of stealing signs, tugging on shorts and illegally bending a hockey stick. Then there are the borderline Olympians in search of a rogue chemist to cook them a gold-medal cocktail.

The problem isn't with Barry Bonds, Tim Donaghy or Justin Gatlin. The problem is with us, the fans. When will we decide we've had enough? When will we decide that we don't want our memories messed with anymore, that we don't want to fall in love like we did with Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire in the summer of '98 only to find out years later that our infatuation was a fraud?

That's why ESPN.com will spend the next two days exploring the past, present and future of cheating in sports. The goal is to talk not at you but with you by engaging in a dialogue that will get you to think about the future of the games we love.

We want you to ask yourself: What do you find admirable about sports? Why do you care about your team so much? Where do you draw the line when it comes to cheating? And when it comes to issues such as game fixing and blood doping and human growth hormone, what do you stand for?

The answers won't come easy. How do you tell a kid who grew up in poverty not to inject himself with something that could lead to a scholarship that could lead to the contract that would give his family a better life? How do you tell him to be honorable when his mom is working three jobs to put food on the table? And who are we to judge what people do with their bodies, at a time when a tiny blue pill offers a night of entertainment and an hour or two of surgery provides a brand-new nose?

Gary Player referred to a famed survey that asked Olympians whether they would rather win a gold medal and die within 10 years or go on for the rest of their life and not win gold. Eighty percent of those surveyed said they'd rather win the gold and die. How do you stop that level of devotion?

It isn't hyperbole to suggest that if we never find an answer, the future of sports is at stake.

Dale Murphy
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesDale Murphy, founder of the "I Won't Cheat" campaign, is working to encourage youth athletes to make the right decisions about cheating.
"Pretty soon, it's not going to be true athletic competition anymore," says former major league outfielder Dale Murphy, founder of the "I Won't Cheat" campaign, which is aimed at encouraging youth athletes to make the right decisions about cheating. "If we don't do something, it's going to be who has the best chemist and who is on their cycle at the right time. And that's a scary, disturbing thought."

Sports have always been a way to connect us to our past and to build optimism about the future. It was a way to bond with your parents when you were a kid and a way to bond with your kids when you become a parent. Race, age, gender, it doesn't matter.

And remember how the whole love affair started? With posters on your walls and baseball and football cards in your albums? Remember when you knew the height, weight, hometown and lifetime batting average for each of your team's starting nine? Remember how you marveled at the ability to hit a 95-mph fastball or throw a football through a Steel Curtain? We wanted to grow up and do something like that.

But now the games that are supposed to teach character, discipline and teamwork are teaching cheating. According to a February survey released by the Josephson Institute, 72 percent of the high school football players they spoke to admitted to cheating on an exam within the last year, compared with 60 percent of the overall high school population. It's not just sports. It's corporate America, politicians, everyone.

"All we have is our integrity," says Murphy, a two-time NL MVP. "And I think it's time that athletes go back to wearing that like a badge of honor. And fans begin demanding that."

Still, there are those who say cheating doesn't matter. That they don't care. Another story about Bonds, Donaghy or everything that's wrong with cycling and they're going to spontaneously combust. They don't want to hear about cheating; they don't want to think about the future of sports. They'd rather look the other way and start planning for their upcoming fantasy football draft.

Then there's the argument that we should simply allow performance enhancers and stop pretending ethics and athletics can coexist. But what sort of a message does that send to kids like Haley Gion? And what will that do to the games themselves, besides fill them with even more drug-enhanced robot freaks?

Think about the greatest moments in sports history. Where would the goose bumps have gone if Kirk Gibson had been suspected of doping when he hit his 1988 World Series home run? What would have happened to the future of women's sports if Brandi Chastain had been accused of steroid use?

And how quickly would the tears have dried up if we had learned Jason McElwain, the New York high schooler who drained six 3-pointers in four minutes, never had autism?

"The way things are heading right now, we're set up for a major crash," says William Morgan, the interim director for the Center of Sport and Citizenship at Ohio State University and the author of "Ethics in Sport." "The whole sports system is on the verge of blowing up in everyone's faces. And maybe after that happens the phoenix will rise again, but maybe it won't."

Hayley Milbourn
courtesy Liz MilbournHayley Milbourn, a recent graduate of Roland Park (Md.) Country High School, will golf at Amherst College in 2007. She already has done the right thing.
For all the forecasts of gloom and doom, there are moments of hope. Take the story of Hayley Milbourn, a recent graduate of Roland Park (Md.) Country High School. Milbourn had just finished her final round this past spring at the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland Golf Championships -- an event in which she was a two-time reigning champion -- when she discovered she had finished her round with someone else's ball.

Nobody else -- not her playing partners, not her coach, not tournament officials -- had noticed. All she had to do was put the ball back in her bag and go collect another championship trophy. But she couldn't. So she turned herself in and later was disqualified.

"I just couldn't accept a trophy for something I didn't deserve," says Milbourn, who will golf at Amherst College in the fall. "I wouldn't have been able to sleep. And I can't comprehend the type of person who would do that. How could you look yourself in the mirror and be proud of yourself? I mean, you didn't actually win."

When told of Milbourn's story, Dave Gion, the father of three from West Des Moines, had but one reaction.

"Now that's a story I have to tell my girls."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.