Cheaters never win, except always
Cheaters never prosper.
We heard it a lot growing up, an incessant reminder. Moms, dads, aunts, uncles, grandparents — no grown-up missed an opportunity to hammer it home. Even if it meant looking up from cheating on their taxes.
If we had been more critical thinkers as kids we might have wondered, "Gee, if this maxim is so self-evident, why do you folks feel so obliged to keep reminding us?"
Now we know.
As the naiveté of childhood began to wear off, we noticed that cheaters occasionally prospered. Then we realized they often prospered. And by the time we were full-grown sports fans we came to appreciate the complete upside-downism of our forebears’ totally misleading aphorism.
Cheaters, we learned, always prospered.
The latest glaring example comes from college football, where the Cal Bears became the first team this season to slow down the blur that is the Oregon offense.
How did they pull it off? They did it the old-fashioned way: They cheated.
Suspicion has been growing for weeks that Oregon opponents have been faking injuries on defense to slow down the Ducks, but last Saturday left no doubt. Cal defensive lineman Aaron Tipoti proved he’s no drama major with his thoroughly unconvincing performance. He hopped up after a play, seemed fine, glanced to the sideline, then flopped on the ball. “Feigning” injury would be an overstatement. He didn’t even deign to feign. His pathetic acting has made him a YouTube sensation.
The Bears lost 15-13, but if you look at the scores the Ducks have run up this year, losing 15-13 falls into the category of prospering.
The poor officials have no way to police this tactic and have to treat every apparent injury as if it’s real. They can’t administer a polygraph or an MRI between plays. So the only “punishment” is sitting out a play. Until the rule is tweaked — how about being required to sit out the rest of the series? — up-tempo offenses are going to see more and more of the Stella Adler defense.
The college football rulebook addresses faking injuries in the following unintentionally hilarious passage under “Coaching Ethics”:
Deliberately teaching players to violate the rules is indefensible. The coaching of feigning injury will break down rather than aid in the building of character of players.
So there. Yeah, Aaron Tipoti might have gotten away with it on the field, but what of the young man’s character?
Feigning injury isn’t allowed. It’s just there’s no penalty for doing it.
All sports have these gray areas. And when winning is the only thing, only saps don’t look for ways to exploit them.
As Billy Martin said, “Cheating is as much a part of the game as scorecards and hot dogs.”
And why not? Putting aside honor — no tough feat there — the only deterrent to cheating is the penalty. If neither Tipoti nor Cal coach Jeff Tedford faces any sanction, why wouldn’t they cheat? In fact, this one might fall under the “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying” heading.
No less a figure than Yankee legend Derek Jeter gave us a great lesson in prospering through cheating this year. In a mid-September game against the Rays as the two teams were battling for the American League East title, Jeter took a Chad Qualls fastball off the knob of his bat. Foul ball? Uh-uh.
No Aaron Tipoti, Jeter launched into a performance of towering conviction, concentration and attention to detail. He howled. He hopped. He summoned the trainer.
It was as if he had just finished a class with Uta Hagen and he was doing his best sense memory work, recalling a time when he actually had been struck by a baseball, remembering how much it hurt and channeling those feelings into his performance.
Take your base.
And though replay exposed Jeter as a liar and a cheat, what was the penalty? Was he suspended? Fined? Did Minka Kelly refuse to be seen with such a no-count low character?
What’s the lesson here?
(Some might say the Karma gods policed the Jeter situation when Nick Swisher was hit on the pants leg with the bases loaded in the playoffs and the call was missed.)
Jeter’s act was just the latest installment in baseball’s long tradition of gaining an edge by extra-legal measures.
“The Giants win the pennant!” — perhaps the most famous sentence in baseball history — has given way to countless stories of the ’51 Giants stealing signs. We’ve seen SuperBalls burst out of bats, cork flying and Joe Niekro’s hapless emery board legerdemain (a performance closer to Aaron Tipoti than Sir Derek Jeter).
But the most obvious examples of cheaters prospering in baseball are the bank accounts of the PED abusers. Those guys got filthy, filthy rich while the cleansters in the clubhouse were devalued by stats of the juiced stars.
Basketball and soccer players cheat in much the same way, trying to deceive officials into thinking something happened that, in fact, did not.
It would be hard to argue that serial floppers Bill Laimbeer, Vlade Divac and Manu Ginobili haven’t prospered from deceiving the refs. The flip side of the "flop" is the "flail" — the desperate, arm-flying spasm always accompanied by a plaintive scream designed to draw a whistle. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce have perfected the art.
In soccer, teams are actually punished for not cheating. Ask the Netherlands.
In the World Cup Final, Arjen Robben (ironically a serial diver) was clearly fouled by Spain’s Carles Puyol. Had Robben gone to ground, Puyol would have been sent off and the Dutch would have had a free kick to win the World Cup.
But instead of embellishing the clear foul, Robben kept his feet, the Oranje were denied the call and Spain would eventually win the Cup.
The lesson? Not only do cheaters flourish, non-cheaters flounder.
Oregon averaged 55 points a game in its first nine games. The Ducks put up just 15 against the stalling Bears. (One sad byproduct of Cal’s theatrics is that they overshadowed an outstanding defensive effort.)
So Arizona and Oregon State, the two remaining teams on Oregon’s regular-season schedule, have a choice: play by the rules and get flattened by the bullet train or try to derail the Ducks by any means necessary.
Everybody wants to be a winner, and fewer and fewer people seem concerned with bending the rules to make it happen.
In a recent interview Connecticut’s two-time national champion hoop coach Jim Calhoun succinctly captured the sports world’s ambivalent relationship with the rules.
“We may have broken rules,” he said. “But we did not cheat.”
It'd be fun to hear Calhoun explaining that one to his six grandchildren.