The Prosperity of Cheaters

Apr 28, 2015 | Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown
The Prosperity of Cheaters

image by: Josh Hallett

We love giving lip service to the value of fair play, but with society so often sending a different message, our kids might think we're delusional to say that cheaters never prosper.

"Cheaters never prosper" is propaganda for chumps. 

While that message may redound through all sectors of life, a few stories from the wide world of sports provide particularly naked examples of how playing by the rules is not the winningest strategy.

Lance Armstrong was a cheater. He was a liar, too, but eventually he admitted that, yes, his seven Tour de France victories were tainted by cheating, taking just about whatever he could lay his hands on that would help him get a leg up on the competition.

And guess what? He'd do it again. That's what he told the BBC a few months ago. That's because to people like Lance Armstrong—in other words, a strong subpopulation of what we call "winners"—it's not the getting there that matters, but ending up on top, no matter the means.

I know this isn't breaking news. But Armstrong's ironic honesty gives the lie to an American classic: the criminal apology. We've heard it so often that we recognize the conceit as readily as a "roses are red" poem or a "knock knock" joke: the criminal persists in her crime until caught, then apologizes to all and sundry, professing shame &c., then gets more or less forgiven for the offense.

The forgivers are saps, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the mea culpa is precipitated not by a crisis of conscious, but by getting caught. Disgraced Olympian Marion Jones provides a classic of the genre. Remember her? Between 1997 and 2001, including the 2000 Summer Olympics, she was the greatest female sprinter on Earth. But it turned out she had cheated her way to such heights, getting the gold through the use of performance-enhancing drugs. She was so vehement in her subsequent denials that she perjured herself sufficiently enough to earn a jail sentence—which is pretty tough to do when it comes to this sort of thing.

At a 2007 press conference after her conviction, a humbled Jones gave another dubious performance. "[I]t is with a great amount of shame that I stand before you and tell you that I have betrayed your trust," she said.  "I have let my country down, and I have let myself down."

The good thing about track & field as a sport is that they actually vacate all of your titles and records, at least for the performances proven to be cheats. Thus, despite thrice standing atop the medal stand in Sydney, officially Jones has never won an Olympic medal.

But Jones's case is the exception. Gains are rarely forfeited, and actual punitive measures by society are virtually unheard of. Baseball's "Steroid Era" provides an obvious case in point. No-one went to jail—even for perjuring themselves. No-one gave up his titles, his awards. A few offenders might—might—not get into the Hall of Fame. We'll see.

While it's pretty clear that no-one is giving up his money, the New York Yankees are actually trying to hold one of their own cheaters accountable on that front. His name is Alex Rodriguez, and if you allow for cheating, he's probably history's greatest shortstop of all time. Consider his numbers: 658 HR, including three 50+ seasons. Almost 2,000 RBI, including 13 consecutive seasons with 100+. A .559 slugging percentage. Unfriggingbelieveable.

The reality is that, when you take cheating out of the equation, no shortstop can do that, even one built more for power-hitting than for spearing a liner making its way toward shallow center. Almost no player this side of Babe Ruth can do that naturally. Including A-Rod.

The Yankees are well aware of that. That's why they're saying they shouldn't have to pay the cheater a series of $6 million bonuses should he surpass various homerun milestones—Willie Mays's 660 is up next—rationalizing that he did not actually earn these bonuses.

Tim Brown of Yahoo! Sports is one among many calling out the Yankees for being hypocrites. They did, Brown reasons, benefit from A-Rod's cheating, so why shouldn't he benefit from them for the results of same?

But Brown misses a bigger point: no-one should benefit from cheating. Which also means: the fewer who benefit from cheating, the better. The Yankees are right: A-Rod didn't truly earn those bonuses, any more than if he'd used some of the $27.2 million per year they were paying him to bribe opposing pitchers into intentionally hanging curveballs so he could swat a few extra dingers per year. Brown's argument is basically Lance Armstrong's argument: Lots of people were cheating, so why shouldn't I? The Yankees benefitted from A-Rod's cheating, so why shouldn't A-Rod? As if 10 cheaters benefitting is no worse than five cheaters benefitting.

It is worse. The more cheaters benefit, the more others are inclined to follow in their footsteps. And while it's bad enough ipso facto that cheaters benefit—and perhaps worse that those who play fair lose out to them—if the idea is always to improve our culture—for example, by ever leveling the playing field—we should capitalize on every opportunity to give cheaters their comeuppance. We should do what we can to make "Cheaters never prosper" a reality rather than wishful thinking.

Imagine if the courts ordered Lance Armstrong to return every penny in salary and endorsements, with interest, he earned while cheating, thus forcing him to live the rest of his natural-born life in destitution. Think that might have a disincentivizing effect on the use of PEDs in sport?  Or how about a world where Marion Jones doesn't get a second set of rewards—including a book deal and a business in which she mentors young people—based on the fact that she cheated and lied? What about at least a world in which A-Rod doesn't cheat his baseballs off and then garner the journalistic equivalent of "He's a Jolly Good Fellow" in the country's third-biggest newspaper?

But we don't live in that world, or even on that side of the universe. Cheaters often prosper—not just or most importantly in sport, of course—because we allow it. So don't teach your children that cheaters never prosper, because that's just another lie. Tell them the way the world really is. If that reality makes us uncomfortable, let's change it.

About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly,, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:

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