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Cheaters never win...or do they?

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Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

You've heard the old saying, "Cheaters never win" right?  But is that old adage really true?  What if cheaters actually DO win?  Take the latest NFL scandal involving Tom Brady and the Patriots. The Wells Report sure seemed to confirm that the Patriots cheated last season when they were caught altering game balls to gain an unfair competitive advantage.  And of course they were caught cheating many years ago when it was discovered they were video-taping opponent's sidelines to determine the opponent's play calls.  Despite being caught multiple times cheating, the Patriots have won an awful lot of Super Bowls.  The Patriots are very obviously "cheaters" and it sure seems like they've come out winners.  Granted, the NFL Commissioner just imposed a punishment for the cheating, but hey, they've still got those Super Bowl trophies, so who cares, right?  A 4-game suspension for Tom Brady is a slap on the wrist (even the lost game checks amount to less than 1% of his career earnings).  A $1 million fine for the Patriots organization is a drop in the bucket of a billion dollar industry.  The loss of a 1st round draft pick is not a big deal for a team that has drafted at the end of the first round for well over a decade running. Even taking all three punishments together is not a huge loss for the organization.  Maybe the Patriots win one or two less games this season because they don't have Brady, but does anyone think this punishment is really going to have any long-term impact on the Patriot's ability to win?  Will it actually deter any other teams from cheating?  The answer is no to both.

The NFL doesn't really care about the "integrity" of the game, nor does it really care about cheating.  It cares about making money, end of story.  It will issue out this form of punishment as a way to keep its public relations image clean and to satisfy fans of other teams that it is doing something to cheating franchises.  But it will go on about its business the same way as it always has.  This isn't the first time the NFL has dealt with a high profile case of cheating, nor will it be its last.  Until the NFL decides to issue Singaporian levels of punishment for franchises that cheat (like, voiding an entire season of wins, or removing a team from next year's draft entirely, or preventing a team from acquiring any new players for 2 years, or suspending the team's football operations for some period of time), there will always be cheating.  The rewards for franchises to win make the risk of getting caught (and the subsequent punishment) totally worth it to cheat.  And I think most fans would agree that if cheating got you a Super Bowl win, and the trade-off was a loss of a 1st round draft pick, a 4-game suspension for your starting QB and a $1 million dollar fine, then it's worth doing.  Our friends over at Purple FTW podcast proposed this very question on twitter this morning, and while the response to it has been pretty split, the majority still would cheat to win the Super Bowl:

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-cards="hidden" lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">POLL: As <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Vikings?src=hash">#Vikings</a> fans, would you take 4 Super Bowl wins in exchange for being labeled &quot;cheaters&quot;? &#10;&#10;RT: Yes&#10;FAV: No <a href="http://t.co/xS5lxQoZVb">pic.twitter.com/xS5lxQoZVb</a></p>&mdash; Purple FTW! Podcast (@PurpleForTheWin) <a href="https://twitter.com/PurpleForTheWin/status/598485690398089216">May 13, 2015</a></blockquote>

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As an educator, I loathe cheating in all forms.  Cheating in the most basic sense is getting some kind of reward through dishonest means.  In sports, it involves breaking defined rules to gain an unfair competitive advantage.  In education, it involves copying someone else's work and passing it off as your own.  In business it involves colluding with competitors to unfairly influence prices in the marketplace.

Why do people cheat?  Quite simply, the reward for cheating typically outweighs the negative consequence.  Cheating is an epidemic in today's society where we strive for the path of least resistance and effort in every aspect of our lives.  Allow me to indulge you in a little educational psychology for a minute (something I studied and use in my own classroom as an educator).  One of the tenants of behavioral psychological is the learning theory of B.F. Skinner.  In a nutshell, the basic theory is that people learn by imitation and then subsequent reinforcement.  When we are children we copy what we see: other children and adults around us.  When we are given praise and acknowledgement after a particular behavior we tend to keep doing the behavior to seek the reward.  Of course there are other factors that play a role in behavior: environment, self-efficacy and a host of other learning theories.  But I agree with Skinner that imitation and reinforcement are the main keys to learning (and changing behavior).  As a teacher I am very aware of when I offer praise to my students.  In fact, I tend to withhold praise until I see exactly the kind of behavior I want.  Then I reward that behavior.  And you know what?  Students tend to keep doing whatever I reward.  It is the idea of a "reward" that is the primary motivation for a given behavior.  So again, why do people cheat? It's because they see other people cheat (ie, imitation), and they are rewarded when they do. Tom Brady cheated and he won a Super bowl.  The Saints cheated with the Bountygate scandal, and they won a Super bowl.  Did both teams also face a punishment?  Yes, but they still got the reward in the end.

The problem I have with cheating in professional sports is not so much the act of cheating itself (although don't misunderstand me, that's bad too), its more what cheating represents in the larger context of sports in our society.  Some would argue that sports aren't "real" and that they don't "matter."  But on the contrary, Sports play such a huge role in our society that I beg to differ.  Professional sports are a reflection of our values in society. We look to sports for escapism, entertainment and in some cases, hero worship.  Our youth respond to professional athletes (for better or worse) as role models, even if they shouldn't.  Many fans project themselves onto their favorite teams and athletes.  When the team is doing well, people are happy, but when the team is losing, they're not in as good of a mood.

Sports and professional athletes play an important role in the life of a fan, and fans tend to adore the athletes on their favorite teams.  But professional athletes are ordinary human beings just like you and me.  They have just chosen to dedicate their lives to one very specific thing: sport.  They have honed their skills and talents to be the very best at what they do.  And for some reason we also expect them to not only be the best at throwing a ball, running with a ball, catching a ball or tackling people with a ball, we also expect them to be better at life than the rest of us too.  We want to see them excel not only as an athlete, but as people.  It's unfair of us to do it, and we will always be let down when the Ray Rice's, Adrian Peterson's and Tom Brady's of the world continue to prove to us that they are no better at life than anyone else. But that doesn't excuse them for making mistakes. That doesn't make cheating, or beating your wife, or going too far in child discipline ok.  We need professional athletes to do the right thing just as much as we need our bosses, co-workers, friends and relatives to do the right thing.  We don't need them to be good people simply because they are role models or celebrities.  We need them to do the right thing because they are people and we should all strive to be the best we can be.

Far too often we expect punishment to act as a deterrent against bad behavior.  We expect that people will do the right thing simply BECAUSE it's the right thing, and if that doesn't work they'll do the right thing to avoid being punished for doing the wrong thing. But that's not how we are wired as human beings.  We do things to get rewards. We see NFL teams cheat and still win Super Bowls. We see players cheat and go on to achieve fame and fortune anyway, despite minor punishments along the way. We see businesses and stock traders rake in billions of dollars after cheating and nearly destroying the US economy and somehow they just get richer.  We see classmates cheat in school, but still earn their degrees anyway.  The most recent Patriots cheating scandal is merely a reflection of the larger epidemic of cheating in our society.  And we continue to reward dishonest and unethical behavior for reasons I can't seem to fathom.  When I catch students cheating in my classes they first deny it, and then get angry with me for having the nerve to hold them accountable as if it shouldn't matter.

I think that ultimately, we as a society are ok with cheating.  Not only do the responses to the simple twitter poll suggest this might be true, but the evidence is all around us. Cheaters do win in our society. They might suffer a small consequence along the way, but ultimately, they still win.  There's another old idiom that you may have heard, "Life isn't always fair."  That's true, but you know what, it ought to be fair.  And we should strive to make it that way in everything we do in life.  If anything I don't think the NFL went far enough in punishing the Patriots (or the Saints, or any other team that has gotten caught cheating). If they really care about the integrity of the game, and if they really care about removing cheating from the NFL, Goodell would do more than a few simple slaps on the wrist.  But we as a society aren't ok with that.  If Goodell had stripped the Patriots of their Super bowl win and their entire 2014 season, the public outcry and uproar would be enormous.  Because at the end of the day, most people cheat in some minor way in their lives and we are ok with it.  We just wanted to see the Patriots get some kind of punishment for breaking the rules, but ultimately the punishment will have very little if any consequence. I wish that would change, but maybe that's just me.  So the lesson that we can draw from the Brady/Patriot scandal is that while you might get caught cheating and pay a small penalty, cheating is worth it, because you'll still win in the end.