Close your eyes and think back.
You’re nine years old. You’re playing Risk or cards or chess with a friend. He leaves the room for a minute and you are suddenly left alone with the opportunity to give yourself a distinct advantage by moving a piece, changing the roll of your dice or switching cards without him ever knowing. Something inside you tells you not to do so, that it’s wrong. You make the conscious decision not to cheat and you eventually win the game anyway.
It is ingrained in most of us at an early age that cheating is immoral. We are taught that breaking certain rules often has damaging repercussions. This is why we as sports fans openly disapprove of such behavior and treat the cheating athlete with such scrutiny and disdain.
Examples abound. Pete Rose, one of the finest and toughest competitors to ever play baseball, remains outside the walls of Cooperstown for one reason. He cheated.
Years ago, Shawne Merriman, one of the more likeable yet feared linebackers in the NFL, was suspended four games for illegal drug use. Despite still leading the league in sacks after seventeen games, many argued he should be left off the Pro Bowl roster. Why? He cheated.
Mark McGwire, who not long ago was widely cheered for reviving baseball with his chase of Roger Maris’ single-season home run record, was recently denied entry into the Hall of Fame. It is commonly debated whether he’ll even make it in. Similarly, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and Jason Giambi, once considered shoo-ins for the Hall of Fame, are routinely vilified for one reason alone. They cheated.
Barry Bonds, arguably the greatest baseball player of all time was ridiculed, booed and taunted in every stadium save his own for one reason. It’s not because he’s inaccessible or short with the fans or media. It’s because we think he cheated.
Of course, aside from Giambi who’s openly admitted to using steroids and Palmeiro who failed a drug test, we still do not know for certain which players cheated despite the mounting evidence against them. It is still unclear as to when, how and how often Alex Rodriguez used despite his interviews and press conferences ‘detailing’ his past.
Mere allegations of cheating are often enough to taint the common fan’s opinion of a star athlete. Like it or not, fair or not, we tend to hold our athletes, our heroes, to a higher standard. We put them on a pedestal. Despite Charles Barkley’s warnings to the contrary, we still treat our athletes as role models.
Fans care when their idols break the rules. We no longer need our sports leagues to police their own. We do a perfectly good job of doing that ourselves. We suspend athletes from our good graces, or sometimes worse in the cases of Rose and Bonds. College programs can lose scholarships or television revenue if they violate set rules for establishing contact with young athletes. Olympians are stripped of their medals. Cyclists are removed of their victories. Athletes deemed heroes one day, become condemned the next. We as fans reserve the right to pass judgment because, right or wrong, we as fans care.
We laud the Jeters and the Mannings and the Jordans of the world who excel without having to resort to cheating and we banish those that don’t play by the rules.
It may be unfair to hold the modern athlete to a higher standard than we hold ourselves. When they are caught cheating in any capacity, we talk about them, blog about them, disparage them for desecrating what we hold sacred, without once considering the pressures put upon them. Unfair? Perhaps. Hypocritical? Undoubtedly. But it’s a fact. Fans care when athletes cheat. Otherwise, Barry Bonds’ historical achievements would be applauded rather than denounced.