What should sports fans do when our heroes turn out to be frauds?
Maybe you grew up watching Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire breaking home run records, as I did, only to find out that they (and just about everyone else in professional baseball) had been using performance-enhancing drugs.
Perhaps you also remember the 2000 Spanish Paralympics basketball team. Ten of the 12 members of the team feigned mental disabilities to win gold medals in a sports scandal that will likely go down as one of the most depraved and insidious in history.
Further back, maybe you even watched the point-shaving scandal of the 1978-’79 Boston College basketball team unfold.
Even if you don’t like sports, you’ve probably heard about “Deflategate.”
NFL officials recently found that the New England Patriots’ game footballs were inflated to levels below the league’s required minimum during a 45-7 rout of the Indianapolis Colts. That win sent the Patriots to the Super Bowl.
Under-inflated footballs are easier for quarterbacks and running backs to grip and for wide receivers to catch, especially in cold weather. By letting a little air out of the balls that only they used, someone in the Patriots’ organization (yet to be determined) gave them a little boost.
Given the score, that maneuver almost certainly didn’t impact the final outcome of the game.
But this scandal raises an even more troubling question than if the cheating had been more flagrant: Is there any length to which certain players, coaches, and administrators won’t go to gain an unfair advantage?
This isn’t even the first major Patriots’ scandal of the decade, after all.
Whether it’s George Brett violating regulations for smearing pine tar on baseball bats, or Rosie Ruiz jumping out of the crowd to “win” the 1980 Boston Marathon, it seems like there’s no corner that can’t be cut.
Fans and players alike tout “love of the game” as the primary motivator for athletes. But playing fair and square has become an exception rather than the rule.
So, league officials and regulators in all sports must tackle this quandary: Will they crack down on cheating once and for all in the name of fair play?
The sports community is standing at a fork in the road. Which path they choose will speak volumes about their priorities.
One is a system that works tirelessly to enforce rules and create accountability so that everyone has a fair shot and nice guys don’t always finish last.
The other looks more like professional wrestling, where fans understand that the game is rigged from the get-go. It’s entertainment, not sports.
As a lifelong sports fan, I want to believe that championships are rewarded to those who played the best, not who cheated the best.