Cheater – Who Me?

Cheating has been part of sport since the beginning. Whereas modern-day cheaters run the risk of a public shaming fuelled by wildfire social media, cheaters in ancient Greece were required to fund statues of Zeus to adorn the entrance to sports stadiums as an eternal symbol of their shame.

Most of us are quick to vilify a ‘cheater’, but how should we define the act of ‘cheating’.  Is any rule infraction cheating? Or must it be systematic and deliberate fraudulent behaviour? It seems, there are times when we are ready and willing to blur lines when it suits us.

Heck, we still argue over whether Ned Kelly was a hero or an out-and-out criminal who broke all the rules.

The division of opinion on the recent Maria Sharapova melatonin disaster is a case in point.  I don’t think many believe that she is a systematic cheater with an intent to defraud us, yet she is guilty of a clear rules infraction.  When I heard about this incident, I was reminded of the time I hired a boat in Italy for the summer.  The owner of the boat warned me that the water police make minor and often arcane changes to the rules each year so that they can catch people out at will and keep their power base (and funding) intact.  Sure enough….

It begs the question as to what really motivates us to cheat at all.

We often think that cheating is predicted based on an analysis of the likelihood that we will be caught, the potential rewards and the associated consequences.  However, the reality of cheating is much more complicated than that.  We know that cheating increases when:

  • There are very high rewards. Hansie Cronje, Lance Armstrong, Ben Johnson and the Fine Cotton affair are some examples that spring to mind; where the potential rewards of cheating were high and any analysis is almost an argument of economics.
  • We keep within our ‘moral fudge factor’. Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University, suggests that we are more likely to cheat so long as it doesn’t affect our moral view of ourselves.   That is, lots of us are happy to cheat just a little bit so long as we can still sleep at night.
  • Everybody’s doing it. It seems our behaviour is affected not only by our moral view of ourselves but by the moral views of our peers and how they perceive us.  The ENRON Corporation and LIBOR scandals as well as and other banking scandals are examples of where group behaviour had shifted moral compasses horribly askew.
  • It is not personal and one can separate the act of cheating from the true outcomes. Think about those legions of internet scammers, who are happy to steal your money online but would probably be unlikely to hold you up at gun-point and steal your cash.
  • There are also cultural norms as to what is acceptable or not – such as with road rules in Italy, where I was told by a local to remember that the road rules are to be taken as mere ‘suggestions’. To even pause at a stop sign when there is no traffic around will be accompanied with lots of honking and hand waving from those following!

In the absence of rules, competitive sport is nothing more than a disorganised rabble and cheating can strike a discord in the harmony of any game.  However, if Ariely’s research is correct, perhaps cheating is just basic human nature to some degree.  If there is a line that we should not cross, where is it drawn and just how should we respond to cheating?

Team sports like cricket and the football codes have a keenly developed concept of ‘gamesmanship’.  Some of the world’s greatest rugby and football players are admired for their ability to get away with rules infractions or ‘milk’ a penalty.   Cricket has the perennial debates of whether batsman should walk, when a bent arm is indeed straight, or when a bit of a spit and polish crosses the line.  When I did a Google search on ‘greatest sports cheats’, Trevor Chappell’s infamous underarm bowling incident popped up in the UK press, despite the fact that he was not breaking any rules of the game (and Australia was not even playing England).   So the boundary between sportsmanship, gamesmanship and cheating can appear blurry to a casual observer, I suppose not only in sport but in all walks of life.

An example is the infamous Italy-Australia World Cup match where Fabio Grosso admitted to milking what was a match winning foul.  A hero in Italy but the vilest of villains in Australia, one could not help but admire the gamesmanship. Of course, Italy went on to win the World Cup that year after beating France in the final.  I am pretty certain that there was some ugly gamesmanship as Zinedine Zidane was goaded into an uncharacteristic head butt that saw him sent off in extra time.   Whilst living in Italy in 2007, my hire car had French plates and I would sometimes come across Italian drivers making head banging motions as they passed me.  It took me some time to realise what they were getting at, much to my great amusement.   Like the Argentinian’s before them with Diego Maradona’s ‘hand of God’ goal, the Italians were clearly not that concerned about the accusations of poor sportsmanship and even cheating, as they proudly brought the 1986 World Cup Trophy home.

On the other side of the spectrum, let’s consider things down at your local golf club.  To be caught cheating in your ‘Saturday Comp’ will likely see you hauled before the committee and probably banned (if they can afford to lose another member).  As a group, golfers have made honesty and self-regulation a hallmark of the sport at all levels.  Sure, you hear about the odd cheating incident, but this is usually outside the confines of the club environment and its well established moral boundaries.   Compare that to the dog-eat-dog world of entry level tennis tournaments where dodgy line and ‘let’ calls are rife, and we can see just how remarkable golf is in this respect.

This boundary between gamesmanship, sportsmanship and the rules is not some arbitrary line that is left to chance and circumstance and redrawn at every encounter.  It is usually a well-established and deeply-understood ‘code’ that is certainly not written in any rule book, but is learnt in the heat of battle.  Good umpires and referees understand the ‘code’ just as well as players and, in my opinion, the rules usually operate within the ‘code’ and not the other way around.  Therefore, we must take care to consider the potential impacts on the ‘code’ when we tinker with the rules.

To break the ‘code’ usually brings far more severe consequences than a simple breach of the rules, as Trevor Chappell and the Australian Cricket team found out on 1 Feb 1981.   There is no one-size-fits-all to this and every sporting subset maintains its own variant of the ‘code’.  For instance in golf, the ‘code’ is pretty simple and centred firmly on playing strictly by the rules.  However, the mind boggles at what the ‘code’ might be in World Championship Wrestling for the uninitiated, where sport and theatre meet head on!

In the course of writing this article, I now realise how complicated this issue is and why it doesn’t make any sense to become obsessed with the rules and the eradication of cheating if those efforts impact on the essence of the sport itself.  Our love of sport gives it massive leverage over many other walks of life; strong groups, peer relationships and role models bring an innate level of self-regulation.  Without careful attention, these can bring negative just as easily as positive effects.

Those worthy traditions, principles and ideals that define the ‘code’, and keeping these things in the hearts of the players seems the key to me.   Working out how to deal with ‘cheating’ must first and foremost consider this in the context of the underlying values of the sport itself.  After all, if we cannot agree on the principles and ideals we desire, then it stands to reason that we will not agree on the rules and what constitutes ‘cheating’; and we will be in a real mess!!

About Peter Robertson

Born and bred in Eumundi and Nambour, in strong company indeed. After studying Maths and Physics at uni in Brisbane, I pursued a business career that I sometimes worry is best described as 'Jack of all trades - master of none'. Having safely made it to my mid 50's, I am still yet to have a real job - but I expect to grow up someday. My love of sport has never waned and I regularly play tennis, golf and surf. Other pursuits include fly fishing and trekking. I have been serving on a few private and NFP boards in sports and other areas to keep me out of mischief.


  1. Where does Mutiah Muralitharan sit in this conversation ?

    In 40= years of watching international cricket, no one has come close to his throwing. He is a cheat.


  2. That’s a good point Glen. As a friend of mine pointed out to me in an insightful comment after reading this post:-

    “rather than upset the uneasy status quo in world cricket politics and ban him, they ruined the reputation of the only umpire bold enough to call him ( Darryl Hair) and changed the rules to that bowlers can legally now bowl with bent arms. Making it highly unlikely that any first class bowler will ever be called for chucking again”.

    Which is similar to how World Rugby decapitated Craig Joubert. Both actions by the authorities to effectively sanction their premier referees/umpires went definitely against the ‘code’ and ultimately diminished both sports as a result in my opinion.

    See. my earlier post that discussed Joubert.and crowd dynamics.


  3. Hey Robbo, where in the rules does it say you’re not allowed to cheat?

  4. A thoughtful piece, Peter.
    Definitely worthy of even greater exploration, I reckon.

  5. Very good.
    However, in golf, there is an onus on the players to call their own rules infractions. If you don’t and are caught out, then you can be disqualified. So I suppose that is a bit of both.

  6. Hi Smokie. Agreed, this post was many pages longer in draft, but I needed to pull it back to a level that someone would bother to read! The comments end up adding to the conversation greatly.

  7. Tony Robb says

    Tiger Woods – the greatest cheater in golf . Speaking of golf, the first rule of golf is that a player must not change the rules of golf.

  8. Ta Robbo, thanks for your comments.

    I can not recall an action like his in the 70’s or 80’s but once he was given the green light to chuck t’s become quite prevalent. Am I labouring too high a point on it saying the proliferation of chuckers, primarily from the sub continent, coincides with the rise of the BCCI to run world cricket.


  9. Cheating is like pornography – I can’t clearly define it, but know it when I see it.

Leave a Comment