Friday, May 29, 2009

It's Not Cheating if Nobody Finds Out

A swim coach sent me a clip today from Sports Illustrated of an interview with Indy Car driver, Danica Patrick. She is asked by reporter Dan Patrick(no relation): "If you could take a performance enhancing drug and not get caught, would you do it if it allowed you to win Indy?" Her reply was: "Well it's not cheating, is it, if nobody finds out?" He followed up with: "So, would you do it?" She answered: "Yeah, it would be like finding a gray area. In motor sports we work in the gray areas a lot. You're trying to find where the holes are in the rule book."

The coach was appalled. Unfortunately, Patrick was merely giving an unguarded, honest answer to the question. She is hardly alone in believing the pervading ethos of modern sport: "Cheating isn't cheating if you don't get caught." It is the engine that drives athletes to dope, to "find where the holes are in the rule book."

Back when I was competing in the '60s and '70s there was a coach in Southern California, Chuck Debus, who was a leading proponent of this philosophy. Drug testing was in its infancy, testing for anabolic steriods was being developed, and drug use was talked about more openly than it is today.

Many coaches and athletes from that era have told their stories of Debus' practices. One of the more tame being when Debus was trying to convince an athlete to "get with the program." He threw a magazine with the picture of a top track athlete on the cover down on the table. "You think she is not using drugs?" he told the athlete he was attempting to convince. In the early 1990s, Alvin Chriss, who was then Ollan Cassell's right hand man within USATF(which was then called The Athletics Congress), asked around about what could be done to stem the growing problem of drugs in sports.

Debus would be a good place to start, he was told. So, Chriss interviewed athletes, coaches, administrators, and put together a case against Debus, who eventually was banned from the sport for life. Doping was not headline news back then. None of the prominent athletes Debus worked with was named. The story hardly received a mention in the news. The impact on the doping problem was minimal. Others, who had done things as bad if not worse than Debus, shrugged and went on about their business.

It's not cheating if you don't get caught.

History may well repeat itself with Patrick's remarks. She may have to apologize for her remarks. Her sponsors and the Indy Car people will try and "spin" the story, make it go away. They will probably succeed because this ethos, this philosophy is not limited to sport. The leadership of Enron was infused with this sort of win at all costs mentality. One of the alluring values of sport is supposed to be an ethos of "fair play." The Olympics are supposed to embody this concept, to lift sport to a higher plane.

Sadly, doping is merely the most visible example of the erosion of these values in sport and society in general. Protests will be lodged with Patrick's sponsors. Like Michael Phelps, she may be deemed no longer marketable enough to appear on a cereal box. Her image may be "tainted," but there will be little discussion of what to do about the underlying problem, the real issue. Patrick is merely a symptom.

John Dean made the famous statement that the Watergate affair and subsequent cover up was a "cancer" on the presidency. This ethos of cheating, "getting an edge" is a "cancer" on society, on sport. If we don't address it. Don't deal with it, it will continue to grow. Eventually sport will not be known for fair play, but for who is the most clever at exploiting the gray areas of the rules.

Ironically, the rules of sport are what are supposed to define what is fair, what is allowed. Instead they are being perverted, bent to serve those who cannot exist within them. In the modern era of sport it is rules, not records, that appear made to be broken. Patrick is merely the latest in a long line of sportspeople alerting us to this danger. It is up to us not to ignore the problem, to spin it away, but to find a solution.


Biffbradford said...

"It's our job to cheat ... and their job to catch us".

peter g said...

This attitude is the same reason that rule books are inches thick. There is a simpler approach: The Golden Rule needs only one line. Then there is the Ten Commandments (10), or the Boy Scout Oath (12 points).

Follow the spirit of competition!