Cheating in sports: Michigan football the latest scandal. Why is playing by rules so hard?

There was no reason any sports fan should have known the name Connor Stalions. Trim, goateed and often seen wearing a poorly fitted hat, he looked no different than any of a dozen coaching wannabes the public watches each Saturday — yet mostly ignores — on every college football sideline in America.

He was a small cog in the vast machine of Michigan football, a program that prides itself on having been the first and only in the history of the sport to win 1,000 games since playing its first in 1879.

But this fall, at a place defined by famous names like Fielding Yost, Bo Schembechler, Desmond Howard, Tom Brady and even President Gerald Ford, there was a simple reason to explain why Stalions — at least for a few weeks — became bigger than all of them in the realm of college football.

He cheated. 

As long as there have been games organized by an agreed-upon set of rules, there have been people willing to break them to reap whatever comes with victory — money, fame, or in Stalions' case, the relentless pursuit of career advancement through illicit means. The evidence of it stretches back centuries and continues to fascinate fans, athletes and scholars.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, front left, watches against Rutgers as analytics assistant Connor Stalions, right, looks on. Stalions was fired for orchestrating a sign-stealing scheme, while Harbaugh - who has said he was unaware of the plan - had to sit out three games.

“Cheating in the chariot races was written about in the Iliad,” said Clark Power, a professor of psychology and education at the University of Notre Dame who also directs a non-profit organization that promotes equity and character development in youth sports. “It’s a human-nature problem, in some sense.”

What compels people to cheat in the first place? What about those gray areas of gamesmanship that might not be considered explicit cheating but don't comport with the spirit of the rules? And is truly fair competition possible when so many people are willing to cheat?

"Whatever is inside of you and me, the intensity and challenge of sports will bring it out," said John White, a professor of practical theology who created the Faith & Sports Institute at Baylor University. "Is it bringing out the best version of me or the worst version?"

Michigan football analyst Connor Stalions was fired after evidence of him orchestrating a sign-stealing scheme was unearthed.

The revelation that Stalions, an analyst working on a $55,000 per year salary, had created a network of amateur spies to film the sidelines of future Michigan opponents in an elaborate scheme to decode their play calls, rocked the sport this fall.

It sparked an investigation from the NCAA, which prohibits in-person scouting. It cost Stalions his job, as well as Michigan linebackers coach Chris Partridge, who allegedly tried to tamper with evidence once the revelations became public. It forced the Big Ten to suspend head coach Jim Harbaugh for three games, even though there was no evidence Harbaugh sanctioned or even knew of the scheme. 

It also, predictably, sparked a backlash from fans who questioned whether Stalions, a former Marine Corps captain, had actually cheated or merely exposed a loophole in NCAA rules. Coaches from across the country weighed in, generally agreeing that while Stalions had crossed a line, sign-stealing and information-sharing between teams had long been part of the sport. And in a 10-page letter to the Big Ten warning against punishment without a lengthy investigation, Michigan’s athletics director argued that the specific rule Stalions broke against in-person scouting offered minimal competitive advantage and that its value had recently been debated by an NCAA committee.

Though the fallout is still ongoing as Michigan prepares to play in a College Football Playoff semifinal Jan. 1, the scandal has followed a familiar cycle of cynicism repeated hundreds of times throughout the history of sports when evidence of cheating is brought to light: Initial outrage, followed by the rationalization that everyone’s stretching the rules to some degree, followed by a debate over why the rule exists in the first place. 

Cheating in baseball: Coming to terms with PED use a quarter-century later

Even today, more than 25 years after baseball’s steroid-fueled home run chases that forced a rewrite of the record books, there is an ongoing conversation about how the sport should recognize the achievements of players who either admitted to or were suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs, leaving voters the near-impossible job of litigating asterisks next to records like Barry Bonds’ 73 home runs in 2001.

Though prominent names who were linked to PEDs like Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Roger Clemens have been denied entry to the Hall of Fame, is that fair? Does it even make sense, given that the Hall undoubtedly includes steroid users who were never caught? 

Fans hold up signs reading "cheater" as San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds steps up to bat in the seventh inning against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field on Sept. 25, 2005.

There have even been academic and scientific movements over the years advocating to make PEDs legal in a regulated environment. In a 2004 article published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Oxford bioethicist Julian Savulescu and his two co-authors argued that, in fact, a permissive approach to PEDs would actually do more to level the playing field because it would make sports less of a genetic lottery.

“Our crusade against drugs in sport has failed,” they wrote. “Performance enhancement is not against the spirit of sport; it is the spirit of sport. To choose to be better is to be human. Athletes should be given this choice.”

The root of that argument is that catching drug users is so difficult and policed so unevenly that it’s no longer even worth trying. But that same logic could be applied to every sport and every form of cheating, which is in large part what makes it so pervasive: The reward is often greater than the risk of being exposed.

It’s a conundrum perhaps best summed up by the former NASCAR driver Darrell Waltrip, who once famously said: “If you don't cheat, you look like an idiot; if you cheat and don't get caught, you look like a hero; if you cheat and get caught, you look like a dope.”

The compulsion to cheat manifests in countless ways, from college coaches breaking NCAA recruiting rules to further their careers to golfers nudging their ball out of a difficult lie when they think nobody’s watching, to competitive fishermen stuffing their catches with lead weights and fish fillets — an incident that two men actually spent 10 days in jail for earlier this year after being caught.

Some of it is premeditated and carefully executed over a long period of time. Some of it, like a college tennis player erroneously calling a ball out on a big point, happens so quickly and spontaneously that their moral compass may not even be fully engaged. 

But regardless of its nature or purpose, cheating is such an ubiquitous part of sports that we sometimes take for granted just how corrosive it is to the very ideal of what athletic competition is supposed to represent. 

“This is the great irony of it,” Power said. “When you ask people if they think sports build character, just about everyone I’ve talked to in my whole life will say yes. On the other hand, just about every sport has its forms of cheating, and there seems to be some evidence that it gets worse from year to year. There is a moral illness we mistake for normalcy, but I think a lot of us want to believe in fair competition.”

Cheating has become reflective of our changing culture

Cheating is such an extensive part of everyday life, manifesting in so many forms, that we often don’t give it a second thought. People cheat on their taxes, they cheat on their spouses, they falsify résumés when applying for jobs, they plagiarize academic work and misrepresent themselves in online dating profiles. All of these things have a corrosive effect on our culture because there is usually a clear cause-and-effect between one party cheating and another being harmed in very real ways. 

But as society has become more permissive in many ways, even high-profile cheating often gets overlooked or excused. Issues that might have been disqualifying for, say, a presidential candidate 40 years ago are now largely dismissed as unimportant or even celebrated. 

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh's college football program is being investigated for sign-stealing.

Cheating in sports, however, seems to inspire a much different reaction on both sides. Because we all fundamentally understand that any sporting event will result in a winner and a loser, those who are outed as cheaters usually become pariahs. And yet, because the stakes in sports are inherently lower than in many other aspects of life, it seemingly becomes much easier for many people to rationalize breaking rules in pursuit of victory. 

“Sports are different because people just think the rules are arbitrary, and of course they are because we just kind of made them up,” said Shawn Klein, an associate teaching professor of philosophy at Arizona State whose research focus includes sports ethics. “Why is it 90 feet to first base? Why is it three strikes instead of four? I don’t know. They landed on it, and it works. So what’s the big deal? It’s just a game. There’s an element that people who would never cheat on their taxes or walk out of the store with an item who might cheat in sports because they think it’s not a big deal.”

But according to several sports ethicists, that mindset overlooks one key difference: While our common rules and norms have been implemented as a way to organize society and improve quality of life, they don't actually create society. Sports, by contrast, wouldn’t exist without the rules. 

“The point isn’t to get the white ball in the hole with a stick,” Klein said. “It’s doing it given the constraints you've all agreed to, which is what creates the game. By going outside that, you’re not playing the game anymore in some way. So the process is maybe more important in sports than in other parts of our lives. What we actually care about is the doing of the thing, not just that we get there first.”

But the reality is that getting there first — or with the most points, runs or goals — is the end game for many of those who play or coach sports at the highest level.

A famous study that began in the 1980s called the "Goldman Dilemma” asked scores of athletes if they’d be willing to take an undetectable performance-enhancing drug that would give them an Olympic gold medal but kill them in five years. According to the results presented by Dr. Robert Goldman, 52 percent said yes. 

While the study has been criticized in subsequent decades and follow-up attempts have yielded significantly lower numbers — likely as a result of societal changes and anti-doping education — it illustrates the eternal struggle to ensure games are played fairly. 

But what can improve, Power said, is how we relay the function and importance of the rules at the very beginning when children first get involved in sports. Simply laying out the rules and the consequences of breaking them doesn’t really work. He cites his own young grandchildren as an example, where even rolling the dice on a board game kind of goes over their head.

“They just love moving the pieces and getting there first,” Power said. "You can say they’re cheating, but they don’t think they’re doing anything wrong.” 

Seattle Mariners fans hold signs in 2015 referring to a steroid suspension New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez served.

As children grow up, they begin to develop their conscience, start to understand more about rules and become more obedient in following them. But what’s often missing is a crucial link: Not just why the rules must exist to work for the benefit of everyone in the game, but that you’re not actually winning what you think you’re winning if the rules are being broken. 

In other words, if you’re cheating, you’re actually playing a different sport than everybody else. 

“One of the things that is true for many people around athletics is they were first exposed to sports as a child before their own ethical decision-making capabilities were fully formed,” said Ann Skeet, the senior director of leadership ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. “So they take a lot of cues from the adults around them, and they learn at a pretty early age some unfortunate realities about what people think are important in sporting events.

“Their parents may start talking about a college scholarship as the only way they can pay for school, and the parent may not be saying, ‘Hey, go take steroids.’ But they may be indirectly saying that it’s something to consider because they need that college scholarship. It’s sort of the unintended messages that are sent in the development of children as they’re engaged in sporting events and what they hear people say and what they see people do and encourage that creates this climate or understanding that it’s OK to nibble at the edges of the rules and skirt the rules.”

Cheating vs. gamesmanship

There are, of course, disagreements about what’s cheating and what’s merely gamesmanship and how the two interact. It’s not always a bright line.

It was blatantly against the rules for the 2017 and 2018 Houston Astros to install a camera in center field and build an elaborate message-relay system that told their batters what pitch was coming. But stealing signs generally is considered part of the game or even a skill. In 2015, the Atlanta Falcons were fined $350,000 and were forced to give up a fifth-round draft pick because they pumped in fake crowd noise to make it more difficult for opponents to communicate in the Georgia Dome.

In basketball and soccer, players will frequently exaggerate the amount of contact on collisions in hopes of drawing a foul on the opposition. Some call that kind of “flopping” a blatant attempt to break the rules, while others will argue it’s merely part of the game.

Cheating or just trying to create a little bit of an edge? 

In some ways, White says, the answer to that question is a window into the soul: Is the nature of sports a test between people and their skills, or is it a test of who can deceive and manipulate the best? 

“This translates to all of life,” he said. “There's no code book that's going to tell me how I ought to behave in every situation. That's why you need a moral imagination to discern if this is right in this situation at this time with these people. That requires wisdom, right? If you’re looking for a rule, you’re going to be lost.”

But there’s also a great paradox in that, which Klein illustrates through the example of a pick-up basketball game where in order for it to function, there must be a general understanding that players are fairly policing themselves. 

“You can’t be too ticky-tack with your fouls if you’re playing pick-up because no one is going to want to play with you,” he said. "And you can’t let everything go or no one is going to want to play with you.

“It’s probably going to be unsaid but understood in that environment because you want to be part of this community, and playing in this environment and making sure people want to play with you, there's pressure on you to follow those norms. When you outsource it to a ref, those norms aren’t as important. You can kind of disregard your responsibility and say, 'I’m just playing. Let the ref call it and if the ref doesn’t call it, I’m free to do it.’ ”

What is true excellence? With cheating, we'll never know

Eric Liddell, the 1924 Olympic gold medalist in the 400 meters, was immortalized in the Oscar winning film 'Chariots of Fire.'

Over the next several weeks, as Michigan attempts to win the College Football Playoff championship, there will be a national conversation about whether Stalions’ activities tainted the work of many coaches and players who likely didn’t know what was happening. 

Many Michigan fans will roll their eyes. But to understand why so many feel so strongly that Michigan should have been punished, it’s worth thinking about what it is that draws people to sports in the first place. 

One of the most famous lines from the 1981 movie "Chariots of Fire" — the true story of two British sprinters who competed in the 1924 Olympics — comes when Eric Liddell says, “(God) made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.” 

Though there’s no real evidence Liddell ever said this, and it was most likely just a well-crafted line written for the silver screen, it cuts to the heart of why athletic greatness might be the only thing that truly unites the world.

“There’s something about the human spirit, the ubiquity of sports, that’s signaling transcendence,” White said. “It incites us and excites us. It draws us in.”

When we’re watching it, appreciating it or even achieving it, we understand what that pleasure feels like. And so we seek it out again and again, hoping we can keep making that connection to something that is happening in front of our eyes but triggers our sense of a higher power, the cosmos, whatever is out there that’s greater than ourselves.

So cheating doesn’t just affect the results of competition; it changes our capacity to understand what excellence really is. Thus, it deprives us of the very thing we come to sports to seek. 

Follow Dan Wolken on social media @DanWolken

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