When the game doesn’t stand tall: Five practices that promote cheating in sports

In building a profile of someone likely to cheat, you might start by imagining an individual full of hubris who is driven to succeed by any means possible.

Would this description fit anyone within the New England Patriots organization?

Some seven years after the NFL meted out punishment to the team for videotaping another team’s signals during a game, the 2015 Super Bowl champions find themselves in the midst of another ethical controversy as the NFL investigates whether underinflated footballs used in the AFC Championship game were tampered with in violation of league rules.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady and team owner Robert Kraft adamantly deny any wrongdoing.

The NFL faces the possibility of a team winning its highest honor while cheating during the season.

What this national stage also offers, however, is a platform to take a closer look at a developing body of research on the origins of cheating, and how it has an impact from the integrity of practices at the highest levels of sports and business to the moral attitudes taught to children in youth leagues.

Researchers find sports ethics are developed at an early age

The picture is not always a pretty one.

The ideal of sports may be to build character and teamwork and collaboration. But it does not hold true for many elite players formed from youth leagues with a sense of entitlement tied to their personal success, said Georgetown (Ky.) College sociologist Eric Carter.

“It’s the opposite,” said Carter, author of “Boys Gone Wild: Fame, Fortune, And Deviance Among Professional Football Players.” “Players become more unethical as they climb up the ladder.”

Here are some key research findings on who is most likely to cheat, and the factors that can predict integrity or a win-at-all-costs mentality:

Winning is everything?: Legendary coach Vince Lombardi, whose Green Bay Packers won the first two Super Bowls, is often credited with saying, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” But he also was a strong advocate of doing things the right way and – win or lose – doing the best one can.

How the drive for success can lead to positive or negative outcomes was shown in separate studies of college athletes in England and paintball players in North America.

In both studies, those who were passionate and had a level of self-worth that transcended wins and losses were more likely to obey the rules and display good sportsmanship. Athletes who displayed an obsessive passion leading to a sense of arrogance and self-importance were more likely to cheat if they thought it would help them win.

Everyone else is doing it: A study analyzing major violations of NCAA rules by big-time college football programs from 1981 to 2011 found conference affiliation and the interaction among rivals are important to the decision to cheat.

“Combative cheating may be the only way to stay competitive and dampen the rewards going to the initial cheating rival,” researchers noted. Of note, from 2003 to 2011, all teams that have won the national football championship were from conferences – the SEC, Big 12 and PAC 12 – that incurred the most violations.

Star-crossed coaching: Youngsters playing for coaches who reward and separate out the best athletes are more likely to say they would cheat if it would help them win, according to a yearlong study of British adolescents competing in regional sports leagues.

Skills vs. competition: Placing an emphasis on mastering skills as opposed to beating others may create more ethical organizations, two studies by researchers in The Netherlands indicated. “To reduce cheating behaviours … coaches should encourage their athletes to improve their personal bests rather than overemphasize competition with others,” researchers suggested.

Deviant stars are made, not born: In groundbreaking interviews with 104 former or current NFL players, Carter found high levels of deviant behavior – 33 of the players were arrested after joining the NFL – in a culture where many athletes begin to believe they can do no wrong off the field.

The players shared stories of rampant domestic violence, drug abuse and sexual deviance. “I don’t know how many guys I know that beat women, their wives or their girlfriends, or, for that matter, both. … It seems to be a common thing,” one player said.

Yet even when they faced arrest, the players reported that others — from team owners to police officers satisfied with autographs — would help them evade responsibility.

For the NFL, the concerns over possible cheating go to the core of the image-conscious league’s integrity, an area that has already taken a hit amid the high-profile domestic violence case against Ray Rice and the child abuse charges faced by Adrian Peterson, two star players.

As Carter notes, “The league has created this culture in many ways.”

Yet it is not just the NFL that would pay the price if the league did not conduct a fair investigation of the deflated footballs, with disciplinary action commensurate to the findings.

If cheaters prosper, if winning without regard to fair play is everything, it leads to a downward cycle where others feel compelled to cheat to keep up, research reveals.

And from the NFL’s high perch in the nation’s psyche, what happens there inevitably has an impact on coaches and players down to high school and youth leagues.

“The NFL has a great responsibility to check itself,” Carter said. “It’s one of the most powerful entities in American society.”

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league is conducting a thorough investigation into the issue that has come to be popularly referred to as DeflateGate.

The question is: Will the league stand tall?

Image by Glowman Public Domain

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