Guzzling a few grapes in the supermarket and not paying for them…
Illegally streaming a TV show…
Taking performance enhancing drugs.
Quite different actions and hard to compare, but all against the rules. And we all know it. The first two might be considered by some to be ‘victimless crimes’, or at least crimes against people who can afford to be stolen from.
You may well have done something similar to the first one yourself. And I’m sure many people you know have done the second one. In fact, a recent survey suggests that a third of football fans in the UK had illegally streamed matches in the past year.
Stealing and cheating are crimes as old as humanity itself. And of course, there is a spectrum of criminality, both legally and morally. To take the illegal streaming example, I’ve heard people justify it by saying that they’re not taking a physical ‘thing’, so the company doesn’t have any less stock to sell.
A weak argument I think, as each person who doesn’t pay is depriving the supplier of income. Some may also complain about high costs, but high costs or a business being wealthy aren’t reasons to take something without paying.
I think that ultimately people believe that they won’t get caught and so there won’t be consequences.
Cheating in sport isn’t quite the same, but what makes people flex their moral fibre is interesting. The grape-pinching and show-stealing are both crimes where the effect of your individual action in isolation is relatively small, and also the company affected doesn’t have a face that you have to, erm, come face to face with.
In sport though, you’ll probably know the person or people that your cheating has affected. You’ve stood opposite them or seen them next to you as your unearned advantage takes you past them in the podium pecking order.
This means that you can’t convince yourself that cheating is victimless because you can literally see the victim. So what makes some sportspeople cheat?
At the elite level, small margins matter. Millimetres and milliseconds can make one player a millionaire, and another an also-ran. Players and coaches are understandably always looking for the small gains, the incremental improvements.
If a supplement is legal, can make a difference and, perhaps crucially, the rest of field is taking it, it makes sense to take it. Otherwise, you might find yourself at a disadvantage. The same applies to the tweaks made to a bike that squeeze the most from a race. I’m sure that some cheating starts off as stretching the limits of what’s allowed. Pushing what’s acceptable and hoping not to go too far (or at least not be found to be doing so).
Winning in sport can bring wealth, fame, adoration and respect, among other accolades. These potential prizes can make it tempting to bend the rules or blatantly flout them, but at what age does that kind of decision come into play?
At school, you hope that that the focus would be on fun and fair play. Young kids playing sport in school aren’t generally cheating in the systematic way that some adult professionals do, but are the building blocks for this temptation put in place early on?
A survey of 1,000 children aged 8-16 found that over half would be prepared to cheat to win. I was shocked by this, but then I’m neither a sportsman nor very competitive.
Is a proclivity for cheating defined by personal values, opportunity or pressure? It’s probably a combination, but it’s important to reinforce the importance of fair play at an early age. My recollections of P.E. at school were of a world where winning was key. In more recent years, wider efforts have been made to promote sport for fun, particularly in a world of widening waistbands that needs everyone to get active.
Whether we participate to compete or just for enjoyment, is there enough emphasis on playing the RIGHT way? I want my sporting idols to play fair because they think it’s right, not simply because they might get caught.
There are ever-increasing numbers of stories about fairness in sport, from drugs to financial impropriety. Efforts are being made by governing bodies to address them and though the task is sizable, it will bring about improvements.
But it’s important to remember that a desire to play sport in the right spirit is one that can, and should be encouraged and developed from an early age, at the very start of a child’s sporting journey.