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Are Any Sports Really Clean?

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The list is really quite long; Roger Clemens and the whole performance-enhancing drug (PED) in baseball scandal, Kelvin Sampson and the University of Indiana, Bill Belichick and the video tape humiliation involving the New England Patriots, and the story surrounding Reggie Bush allegedly receiving illegal benefits while at the University of Southern California. And these are only the recent cheating-based stories.

There have been many other cheating stories over the past few years, whether it was boxing, NASCAR, Formula One, cycling and the Tour de France or NFL players taking human growth hormone, steroids and other PEDs.

Being that this is an Olympics year – the summer games will be held in Beijing – there have been stories discussing the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) pursuit of a better blood test for HGH, as well as other screening tests that can catch drug cheats. As a matter of fact, this has been an on-going story for the past several years, ever since the airing of Major League Baseball’s dirty PED laundry.

So the question really needs to be asked. Are these isolated instances, illustrative of the fact that cheaters get caught, or is everyone – or most people cheating – and do these recent cases represent a minuscule portion of the actual cheating that is going on?

Perhaps it’s time to bury the romantic concept of sport once and for all, and accept that the era of technology, bioengineering and enhanced life is officially here. Of course, old school cheating has always been a part of the story, and can still change the course of competition.

The romantic concept of sport – where athletes competed for the love of the sport – has been dying a slow death for the better part of 4 decades with the advent of free-agency, endorsement deals that pay better than prize winnings and salaries, and the explosion in popularity of sports in general. Events of the past few years have driven a figurative stake through the allegorical heart of the quaint, out-dated notion that is the romantic concept of sport.

For a minute, let’s not even bother with the PED issue and just focus on good old-fashioned cheating of the kind favored by Kelvin Sampson and Bill Belichick. These guys didn’t need cutting-edge science in their quest to get an illegal leg up over their competitors, just standard household technology to violate the rules.

Sampson is a recidivist cheater and I heard one college hoops analyst say that the cell phone is Sampson’s crack. The current-for-the-moment Hoosier head hoops coach was busted for misdeeds with his cell phone while holding the same position at the University of Oklahoma, and Indiana knew what they were getting when they hired him. And brother, did they get it. Sampson has not only apparently done the exact same thing that he got in trouble for doing while at Oklahoma – something that he was expressly forbidden from doing again – but has apparently misled investigators as well.

But he wins and Indiana wanted to win. So they hired Sampson, cheating warts and all.

And really who cares if Sampson and his staff love talking to high school basketball-playing boys on their cell phones? The kids get to go to college for a couple of years and Sampson wins some big games, collects his paychecks and allows the Illinois alumni base to go crazy nuts. Who loses? Who is the victim? If Sampson gives better phone than his fellow coaches, huzzah to him.

The NCAA recruiting regulations are infinitely more ridiculous than prohibitions on using PEDs, as PEDs can be dangerous. College coaches are just annoying.

And then there’s Bill.

Belichick has a history of bending and breaking the rules. I heard a great story about this year’s Super Bowl losing coach that goes back to his days as the head Cleveland Brown. According to one of the ESPN football experts, Belichick didn’t let his guys wear jerseys with numbers and employed the cover story that this was because he was afraid of people spying on his practices. However, a Brown confided in the ESPN reporter that Belichick really did this because he used players who were not on his official roster, so that he could protect his regular roster players from injury and wear and tear. That’s a great cheater, ladies and gentlemen.

But Belichick wins Super Bowls – until this year – so he’s indispensable. And maybe all coaches cheat anyway, so what’s the big deal?

These guys just didn’t wake up one morning and decide to cheat. And does anyone think that these guys are the only coaches who are engaged in this kind of stuff? Is college basketball “clean” except for Kelvin Sampson and a couple of other bad eggs, or is this behavior standard operating procedure?

Looking at how the NFL has handled the Belichick situation – or perhaps mishandled is more appropriate – I’ve kind of been getting the feeling that this kind of thing isn’t as isolated as we have been led to believe.

And then there’s the high-tech cheating that we’re becoming all the more familiar with everyday, the PED in baseball story is a great example of this, but certainly not the only one.

Sports have always manipulated technology in order to improve performance, and so we’re running into some gray areas here. How are the present day advances in equipment, medicine, therapy and other related fields any different from the quantum leap benefits athletes of the 1970s had over their 1940s counterparts? This isn’t to say that sport can’t or shouldn’t place restrictions on their athletes, but where is the line drawn?

When I was a kid I saw the big, oversized aluminum tennis racquets replace the old-school wooden beauties that are now museum pieces, experienced the aluminum bat revolution first hand and watched baseball gloves get bigger and better each year. And these are just a few of the most basic changes to the most rudimentary tools and accessories of sport.

Does anyone think the pole vault record would be as high as it is without advances in the technology that manufactures the pole, or would the 100-meter sprint record be what it is if the race was run on a cinder track? Or in track shoes from the 1950s?

I’m not forwarding the position that these advances should – or even could – be viewed as cheating. However, when you consider that people are constantly trying to push the envelope – and reach uncharted territory – and that the basic nature of sport is to improve, it’s hard to imagine holding back people from doing so. The difficulty in restraining people – regardless of if this restraint deals with ethical or unethical means – is a daunting task.

With the advances in science and medicine we’re being forced to come to grips with the issue of enhancement. If we accept the concept in general that medicine can help people of all ages live a healthier, longer and more productive life we will have to determine how sport fits into this new world order. And while at the moment we’re not at this point where medicines and therapies are going to aid young and old alike, we’re getting there at warp speed. Medical ethicists have been discussing this issue for years and the rest of us are going to have to catch up.

When you look at all of these events surrounding sports, I think you can clearly say the romantic concept of sport is dead and gone. Events that cannot be controlled have changed sport forever and in 2008 there is no such thing as a clean sport. If you look at many ballplayers’ responses to Roger Clemens’ testimony – in that nobody has a bad thing to say about him and will not hold steroid and HGH use against him – it’s clear that baseball is not and will not be clean.

Perhaps a deal can be struck where athletes stop pretending that they are that much better than their predecessors and admit they owe their success to the pharmaceutical preparations of the 21st century. In turn fans will recognize that athletes don’t really just compete because of love for competition, but are in it for the millions and millions of dollars in salary and endorsements. And the groupies.

I think that’s a fair deal; fans realize it’s all just entertainment and drop their slavish fealty to athletes and athletes can take their drugs, break records and lose the tired, “I don’t care about accolades and the Hall of Fame” act.

The notion of cheating in sports will be one of the topics I will discuss this coming Tuesday at 8 p.m. EST on Performance Enhancing Radio.

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About Sal Marinello

  • And even the old notion of “no cheating went on back in the heyday” isn’t exactly true – Bobby Thompson’s 1951 pennant-clinching home run was aided by a stolen sign. So regarding forgiveness from the general public, it’s simply a matter of what the broken rule is, and is the punishment reasonable enough.

  • In 1977 the Montreal Alouettes beat the Edmonton Eskimos in the Grey Cup. It was something like -140c outside. The turf was a sheet of ice in Montreal. To get a grip on the field, players for the Als nailed some staples under their shoes. Result? While the Esks slipped and slided everywhere, the Als made for the endzone in a 41-7 romp.

    Was this cheating or just plain being smart? Esks players will tell you cheating I am sure.

    And then there was the 1954 World Cup. Easily, Hungary was the single most dominant soccer nation. No one came close. NOBODY.

    The game conditions were wretched for the game. Luckily for the Germans, a German shoe manufacturer had come up with the prototype for the modern soccer shoe. The German soccer team bought the shoes and Adidas was born.

    When Adidas approached Hungary, the Hungarians said, “Thanks, but we’re good.”

    Result? Germany, after getting thrashed 8-1 against Hungary earlier in the tourney, won the final 3-2 in one of the most improbable victory in World Cup history.

    Imagine that, even with the advantage on the pitch on the field, the Germans were still being outclassed by the Hungarians.

    This is a case of technology have a direct impact on a game. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Hungary didn’t have the interest to try out the shoes.

    All this being said, something tells me we can come up with hundreds upon hundreds of stories like these in which cheating and technology determined the outcome of a game in sports history.

  • sal m

    was tom cousineau playing on that montreal team?

    i’m not sure if your examples are cheating…were there expressed rules against what those teams did?

    there’s a famous american football game where the ny giants changed from cleats to sneakers in the second half to be able to play on a frozen solid turf. they won the game. that’s not cheating, they just changed shoes.

  • Yeah, maybe they were borderline examples but the Esks considered it cheating. They were not “legal” shoes.

    The second example was about tech.

    I don’t think Cousineau was on that team. I think he came in the early 80s for a brief time.