Why sportspersons cheat

Most sports fail to erase cheating because they apply an economic framework in dealing with offenders. Could a morality-based approach be the answer?

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Cheating is part of virtually every sport. Often it’s small infringements — tugging someone’s jersey in football or running down the middle of the pitch in cricket. Or it could be one huge deception, like Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ at the 1986 football World Cup.

At the professional level, the enormous rewards for winning can outweigh any stigma associated with pulling a fast one. But all over the world, in local leagues where the only prize is the respect of your opponents, players cheerfully bend the rules. On the face of it, this makes no sense. You’re playing only for respect — simply trying to prove you are the better player or team. Yet you’re prepared to cheat to achieve it. Why?

The psychologist Dan Ariely conducted a wonderful experiment selling chocolates on college campuses. He and his students varied the price and studied the behaviour of their ‘customers’. At 10 cents each, they sold some chocolates. At 5 cents, they sold twice as many – more people took some, and each individual took more. At 1 cent, they sold twice as many again.

But when the chocolates were free, fewer were ‘sold’, even allowing for the fact that yet more individual people helped themselves. Each person who took any took fewer – and the majority took only one each. The situation had moved from an economic one: ‘I have x money and y other things to buy, so I’ll buy z chocolates’ to a moral, social one: ‘People will think me greedy; I should leave some for others’.

Rationally, there’s almost no difference between 1 cent and free. At 1 cent, you ought already to be considering your reputation or the enjoyment of others. But, for the most part, you don’t. You just buy the chocolates. No matter how small the cost, there is a huge psychological difference between that and free.

In sport, the costs of foul play are generally clear. If Maradona’s handball is spotted, it’s a yellow card. If you illegally scratch a cricket ball, the opponent gets five runs and the ball is replaced. Cheating is thus an economic decision – do a cost-benefit analysis and make your choice. What Ariely’s experiment showed is that the economic mindset doesn’t add to the social and moral incentives that already exist – it replaces them. Once it’s a question of economics, morality becomes irrelevant.

Examples of this phenomenon abound. In the book Freakonomics, the authors discuss the case of an Israeli day care centre that decided to levy a fine on parents who were late in picking up their children. To their astonishment, lateness increased. Parents no longer felt guilty, and were happy to pay a small fine for the flexibility of leaving their kids there. A larger fine might have done more to replace the lost moral incentive, not augment it.

And once we take morality out of it, even severe punishments are sometimes worth suffering. Uruguay’s Luis Suarez was shown a red card at the 2010 World Cup against Ghana for stopping a certain goal with his hand in the last minute of the game — hoping the resultant penalty would be missed. It was missed, and his team went on to win.

None of us likes to admit to ourselves that we’re cheats. Economic arguments offer us a way out. Instead of “I cheated,” it’s “I’m beating the system.”

But cheating need not always be an economic decision. Ultimate Frisbee – increasingly popular in India – is an invasion sport. Like football, opposing players compete for the same space as they try to move the disc downfield and score at the opponents’ end. Inevitably, contact between players does occur and fouls are called.

And yet… There are no punishments for infringements. Every foul is treated as an accident. There are no external referees – the players referee themselves, right up to World Championship level. If I call foul, then play stops and we discuss it. If we agree you fouled me, you give me the disc back. If you persuade me it wasn’t a foul, then I retract my call. And if we can’t agree, the disc goes back to the thrower and we play on as if none of it ever happened.

In Ultimate, an economics-based approach to cheating cannot guide one’s behaviour. The punishment is always nothing, and so whatever benefit I might get from cheating is always worth it. Economically speaking, I should cheat constantly. But that would be absurd. Both sides would incessantly call bogus fouls and the game would become meaningless. Since economics gives no useful advice, so behaviour must be governed by social norms and moral considerations.

This works. Cheating in Ultimate is far less prevalent than in any other sport where opponents physically compete for the same space. In 25 years of playing, I never once had my shirt pulled. There have been accidental fouls, and sometimes I’ve wished my opponent had been more careful, but overall the game is extremely clean. There are more deliberate infringements during a single corner kick in football than in a whole tournament of Ultimate.

To experience gameplay like that even once is a gift. To experience it almost every time you step out on the field is pure joy. You should try it.

Benji Heywood is the director of Ultimate Frisbee at the University of St Andrews. He blogs at understandingultimate.wordpress.com.

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