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My young friend Ricky LaBlue just posted this story, where he looks at the all-day circus going on at the University of Tennessee, and asks the age-old question “is it worth it to cheat the system?”
I’ll let Rick tackle the Tennessee angle. I'll answer from the perspective of my lifetime, and how the answer to that question has changed quite a bit.
As a young man, the answer was easy: Of course it’s not. It’s wrong. That’s why they call it cheating. We were raised at a time when you lived by rules similar to those of golf. Know the rules, abide by them, and if you violate them, call them on yourself and accept the penalty associated with that transgression.
Obviously as you grow older, you discover life isn’t that simple. You find for some, the answer morphs into responses that qualify the answer with “it depends on if you get caught,” something I think of frequently when someone says they are sorry after being found guilty of cheating.
“You’re not sorry you cheated,” I think. “You’re sorry you got caught.”
Lately it has emerged to a different state, where the answer becomes “it depends on whether it helps my side win or not.” This philosophy confuses the moral distinction of right or wrong with the thought it’s just a matter of gamesmanship. What you perceive as cheating is just smart management by our side to do everything possible to succeed. If it crosses the line of right or wrong, that’s on you for not paying attention closely enough and doing something about it.
It reminds me of a time back in the 1990s when I was in the furniture business. We’d ship designs overseas to factories in the Far East (I’m not going to be any more specific as to which country) and they openly subscribed to this theory of gamesmanship. One time we were working on a cocktail table (which has four legs) and the price they were offering was too high.
They wanted us to redesign the table and take features out of the product, while we wanted them to lower their margins so we could sell the table for $99 in the United States. Back and forth it went until they agreed they would lower the price so we could hit the $99 price point.
Then they shipped us a table for us to review. With only three legs.
Back in the 80s when I was covering NASCAR - where cheating was elevated to an art form - I remember one high-profile driver complaining of constantly being audited every year by the IRS. Eventually, he said, they came up with a plan where they'd provide all the documents asked for, but put ones with some obvious minor infractions at the top of the stack. The major bending of the rules, he said, would be at the bottom. The auditor would find what he was looking for in the first few hours, then lose interest and never dig deep enough to see the major problems. He said it worked.
Cheating was a strategy, both on and off the track.
So these days, I have to say I don’t know how most people would answer the question. In Knoxville, the answer would probably be no, because they got caught. Their defense would be the gamesmanship I’ve mentioned. They were just trying to do the best they could to make the fans of the great state of Tennessee happy, while keeping up with all those other programs in the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference.
In other places, like Chapel Hill, NC, the answer might be different. Heck, they got caught during an academic scandal involving athletes and they still got away with it. Once you know this, I’m not sure the temptation to do it again wouldn’t be overwhelming. I mean, what did it cost you the last time? As long as you won, it’s OK, right?
That’s the funny thing, however, about integrity. Either you have it or you don't. It doesn’t care about the situation, whether you win, or the reason you tried to skirt the rules. There is no gray area in the multiple choice question of right or wrong.
It’s one. Or the other.
It’s not just in the world of sports these days, either.