It wouldn't be accurate to say that Texans running back Arian Foster recently confessed to accepting under-the-table payments while he was at Tennessee, in violation of NCAA rules. Foster didn't confess anything. His was more defiant declaration than reluctant admission. "There's nothing wrong with it," he says in an upcoming documentary, Schooled: The Price of College Sports. "And you're not going to convince me that there is."
He's probably right about that last part. No one is likely to persuade Foster that he did anything wrong because hardly anyone tries anymore. Where there was once immediate outrage over athletes breaking rules, even the head-scratching ones in the NCAA handbook, there is now acceptance. College or pro, whether the misdeeds involve money, steroids or academics, the rationalizations arise: It's not really cheating because the system is corrupt. It's not really cheating because the rules are hypocritical. It's not really cheating because everyone is doing it.
Stack up all of these so-called larger issues and they form a wall that obscures the original act. Johnny Manziel's autograph-signing scandal becomes a debate over whether college stars should be able to profit from their fame. The Biogenesis disclosures turn into discussions about whether steroids today are any more performance enhancing than the amphetamines of previous eras. Those are worthwhile topics, but the reality that players knowingly broke defined rules shouldn't become an afterthought.
We have built up such a tolerance for cheating that simple rule-breaking barely elicits more than a yawn. It wasn't so much the initial revelations of steroid use that brought the public's ire down on Lance Armstrong and Ryan Braun—it was their bold-faced denials and attempts to smear those who offered evidence against them. As for Alex Rodriguez, A-Rod is the target of boos not just for using PEDs but for being, well, so A-Rod.
It takes more than it once did to move the moral-outrage needle, but a little righteous indignation would go a long way. It's time to treat cheating like cheating again. It's not just rules that keep potential cheats in line—it's the stigma attached to breaking them. If slugger Nelson Cruz of the Rangers, fresh off a 50-game Biogenesis suspension, can slide right back into the lineup for Texas's one-game tiebreaker with barely any objections, it lessens the incentive to stay clean. Ditto for the lucrative fee-agent contract Cruz is likely to sign this winter.
"While I may not think that many of these substances [PEDs] ought to be banned ... these players have, through the CBA, agreed to these rules," writes Rockford (Ill.) University philosophy professor Shawn Klein in his blog, The Sports Ethicist. "For them to violate these rules is a violation of their integrity and honesty. For this, we ought to condemn them."
That condemnation doesn't mean stoning them in the town square. It means not devaluing the importance of integrity. It means not giving in to moral relativism, the idea that any rule that seems unnecessary can be broken. And it might mean taking a stand beyond normal punishments. In last year's postseason the Giants could have welcomed back the suspended Melky Cabrera, as the Rangers did with Cruz. But San Francisco left the steroid user off its October roster even though he was eligible to play.
It's not that athletes should forever follow bad law. But the idea ought to be to change objectionable rules, not ignore them. All Players United, the movement put together by the National College Players Association to push for reforms, is the right idea. The Ed O'Bannon class-action lawsuit, in which college athletes are suing to share in the profits from the use of their likenesses to sell merchandise, is the right idea. A player who thinks he should be paid to play accepting a $500 handshake from a booster is not.
No one doubts that NCAA rules could be more intelligently written, or that drug policies in pro sports could be improved. But it would be easier to listen to athletes' arguments on topics like those if they showed a greater willingness to listen to their own consciences.
We have built up such a tolerance for cheating in sports that simple rule-breaking doesn't get much more than a yawn out of us.
Has the tolerance for cheating in sports gone too far?
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JOHN BURGESS FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED