Sports cheats: the really mini-marathon, ambiguous genitalia, and the hand of God

1919-blacksox-188x100SoccerLens has fifteen top cheats in sports history. Tonya Harding, the Chicago Black Sox, and the French figure skating judge are all here, along with several other fascinating and/or just plain weird cases.

What explains cheaters?

Sports are a microcosm and stylization of life: goal-setting, preparation, effort, character, the integration of mind and body, competition, success and failure. It’s all there in sports, distilled and intensified into a few hours’ experience.

The usual answer is that cheaters have so strong a desire to win that they will strive to do so at all costs.

I wonder. Cheaters do have a desire to win, but by the time we are adults we know that a cheated victory is hollow. Example: You’re an adult playing chess with a five-year old who doesn’t have much skill and doesn’t know the rules well. So you make up rules as you go along and, when the kid isn’t looking, switch a few pieces. Ah, the thrill of victory! The satisfaction of achievement! Of course not. It’s a pathetically empty.

An adult cheater knows that he has not won through skill and effort, and he knows he will not experience the pride that comes from a genuine win.

So why cheat? The only thing the cheater is left with is that he knows that other people will believe that he won and he will reap the value of their enhanced esteem.

So here’s a hypothesis about the psychology of cheaters: Cheating is not motivated by a desire to win, but by wanting to be thought of by others as having won. Cheating is a kind of social metaphysics—what others believe is true is more important than what is actually true.

Another possibility is that the cheater knows the above—that a cheated win is hollow—but in the short run his intense desire to win crowds out his knowledge. So cheating is a failure to hold the context of why one is playing sports: strong desire overwhelms the cheater’s knowledge, or through weakness of will the cheater ignores his knowledge to indulge the desire.

So what explains cheaters? Is it: (a) social metaphysics? (b) overwhelming desire muscling out knowledge? or (c) weakness of will? Feel welcome to cast your vote in the comments.

I’m setting aside for now what I think of as the specialty cases of cheating:

*Cheating in a financial context: you cheat not because you want the win but because you want the money that comes with the win.
*Or cheating in a social context: you cheat because you don’t want your teammates to lose or because you want your teammates to have the win they want.
*Or con-man cheating: you cheat just for the pleasure of pulling off a scam.
*Or cheating that is malevolent: you want to see your opponent suffer a loss, so you don’t care that the win is hollow—you enjoy knowing the other guy is hurting and/or that you deprived him of the experience of winning.

ashea-131x100 I’m reminded of this quotation about competition from tennis great Arthur Ashe:
“You are never really playing an opponent. You are playing yourself, your own highest standards, and when you reach your limits, that is real joy.”

By that standard, cheaters are major league losers.

2 thoughts on “Sports cheats: the really mini-marathon, ambiguous genitalia, and the hand of God

  • November 22, 2009 at 9:20 am

    Would you be unsatisfied with a reply that posited multiple explanations? Why couldn’t all of these be valid explanations, depending on variations in individual psychology? Furthermore, couldn’t these all be foundational root cause explanations for the people to which they applied? Does explanatory adequacy depend on unification at a ‘deeper’ level in this (or all) cases where an explanation is sought? Isn’t there a body of research in social psychology based on asking caught cheaters why they cheated? If so, what is the specifically philosophical aspect of the explanation, and why wouldn’t psychological explanations be less than fully adequate?

  • November 22, 2009 at 11:50 am

    All of those are excellent methodological questions.

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