Cheating in sports: the risks behind a winning culture

5 min

With sport daily becoming more like a business, is it time for the sporting industry to be as morally accountable as any other business sector?

Author: Diego Zabala,  lawyer specialized in advising multinational corporations on regulatory compliance. LLM. Global Corporate Compliance 

High-performance athletes and executives have similar personality characteristics that drive them to achieve their goals at any cost—making them more susceptible to cheating. The relationship between a winning culture and an ethical culture, both in business and in sports, has many edges that are worth investigating. It is time to turn sport into a business, and also look at business in sports, to figure out why athletes are cheating, and why they are getting away with it.

I fear the day that I open the newspaper and read that my sports hero, my star player, the player whose jersey I eagerly bought for my son, is at the center of a doping scandal. Cases of athletes and teams getting caught for some form of cheating are increasingly common. Is this due to the improvement of controls, or has doping in sport simply increased?

Sports documentaries are beginning to uncover the a truth behind athletic performance. I recently watched the sports documentaries Icarus and Screwball on Netflix, and my opinion shifted towards the idea that doping in sport has increased. Intrigued by the subject, I began to investigate. I started with the most well-known cases and then dug deeper into the rabbit hole of the innumerable cases of cheating in sports. However, the athlete did not always operate alone: other participants and those managing sports are often involved too—sometimes the whole team, the organization itself, or even an entire country.

Cheating encompasses incidents as simple as feigning injuries to penalize the opponent, to the more complex ones such as doping, illegal betting, and fixing matches. So, in an effort to understand why people cheat in sports, I began to research the psychology of high-performance athletes in their decision-making processes and the pressures they are subjected to in a highly competitive environment.

The bottom line is straightforward: people like to win—cheating pays off. It seems everyone cheats and everyone knows about it; therefore, it’s more about doing it without being caught. It’s only a matter of time before the news comes to light: my hero confesses he cheated for more than half of his professional sports career. Is there a way to stop it?

In all business and in sports, organizations should design their own code of conduct and compliance program that identifies these behaviors as one of their highest risks.

Doping in sport: Under pressure and out of control

The use and abuse of performance enhancers by younger athletes is concerning. More concerning though, is the fact that in many cases their parents, coaches, and trainers are encouraging them to use these enhancers—further risking their potential careers, health, and even their lives. Athletes, parents, coaches, and team owners know that the largest chunk of the sports industry, which is valued around $500 billion a year, goes to the winners. The material and psychological rewards are so great, that putting aside ethical and moral values seems to be easy; it is human nature to find a way to justify unethical behavior to benefit ourselves and others.

Unethical behavior does not generate negative effects in the sports industry. Instead it creates positive results for the perpetrator. Are the cases of cheating considered to be cheating or simply beating the system with intelligent play? The soccer player who exaggerates his fall to earn a penalty, which he scores and in turn wins the game—is he cheating, or playing smart?. Have you ever justified those types of moves by your team in a conversation with your friends?

The sports I have always known and practiced are those that inspire, excite, and exalt the soul and human beings as a species. They create strong friendships, build character, reinforce discipline, and provide moments of joy and pride for athletes and spectators alike. The inefficiency of the controls set in place by sports authorities to prevent cheating is not due to a lack of resources, but the pressure from society to produce winners. We could simply allow the use of drug enhancers and let pharmacology, sports science, technology, and human effort create the perfect athlete: But why? Instead, we should fight to defend the integrity, reputation, health, and safety of our athletes. Human imperfection is what makes sports so exhilarating, and competing with imperfections, alongside the uncertainty of the final result, is the best part of competition.

The use and abuse of performance enhancers by younger athletes is concerning

Managing sports as a business instead of a game

The sports industry should be treated as the business that it is; therefore, the same principles we would use to analyze the ethical behavior of any other economic sector should be applied to sports. First, we must restore ethical and moral values in competition. Training under these values should start in young athletes with a code of honor; “I am an athlete. I do not cheat on the field or in life.” Their parents are key part of their training. So parents, being the primary role models for their children, must share and commit to these values.

It is very likely we can establish a balance between the winning culture present in sports today, and the ethical culture we aspire to reach. Sports fans value the efforts and share the will to make those values known to others. They strive to help athletes understand that the virtue of sport is directly related to the choices they make in difficult times. If we apply this principle to managing sports, we can help our young athletes to find the courage not to be influenced by unethical behavior.

At the same time, control and sanction systems must improve. Systems to control unethical behaviors must be present during the first years of the athlete’s training and then will prevent young athletes from being attracted to cheating behavior. These controls should not only be aimed at athletes, but also at parents, coaches, and other technical personnel who guide them during their early training years.

Similarly, sanctions should be more efficient and include anyone involved. Teams and sports organizations must also be held responsible for their participation in unethical behavior, including misconduct or omission of necessary monitoring procedures. In all business and in sports, organizations should design their own code of conduct and compliance program that identifies these behaviors as one of their highest risks.

Major sports organizations, such as the International Olympic Committee, FIFA, MLB, and NBA could provide useful services by: providing education and training to affiliate organizations on integrity risks and comprehensive compliance; collaborating with partner sports organizations to develop standards, guidelines, and policies for a preventive compliance program; developing a program of shared services for organizations with limited resources; and providing related compliance services, such as a hotline to anonymously report incidents or irregularities, conduct risk assessment, and designate integrity officers to oversee programs and conduct initial investigations.

Just like in sports themselves, making the business an even playing field is a team effort. People enjoy playing, watching, and winning, so it should be done with integrity and be worthwhile for everyone involved.

Diego Zabala is a lawyer specialized in advising multinational corporations on regulatory compliance. He has studied Law, Economics and Public Policy at the Complutense University and is currently an LLM candidate for Global Corporate Compliance at IE Law School.

Note: The views expressed by the author of this paper are completely personal and do not represent the position of any affiliated institution.