Cheating is an irremovable stain on American sport, but it is not a recent phenomenon in team athletics. Some forms of cheating are deemed more acceptable – baseball players are praised for their ability to steal signs while on second base or in the dugout – while other kinds of cheating – pitchers secretly using sandpaper or other substances to doctor a ball – are considered taboo.
However, cheating through performance enhancing drugs transcends different sports’ idiosyncratic cheating and is universally recognized as dishonest. In spite of this collective sentiment, fans of different sports react differently to performance enhancing drug use and cheating in general. Baseball and football fan’s reactions epitomize a disparity of attitude toward cheating. The baseball media and fans shamelessly tear into each performance enhancing drug abuser, while football media and fans maintain an attitude of ambivalence. So why do baseball players get persecuted while football players get off virtually scot-free?
Fundamental differences in each game’s structure drive fan reaction to cheating.
Baseball’s individualistic structure yields memorable statistics and numbers. 10 years later, why do I remember that the hated 1998 New York Yankees went 114-48, and swept the San Diego Padres 4-0 in the World Series? Stats matter. More likely than not, an average baseball fan knows the meaning of .406, 56, 61, 73, 300, 755 and 3,000. But why do baseball fans remember these numbers? Moreover, why do fans care that Barry Bonds violated fan trust to break home run records? Why do fans care that Roger Clemens allegedly (yeah right) used HGH and steroids to win 300 games?
Most baseball fans want to see meaningful records broken honestly. Unfortunately, most football fans don’t care.
Football’s structure focuses upon chemistry, which is reflected through team, not individual, performance. So, one would think that Patriotesque cheating. The New England Patriots illegally taped defensive signals of the New York Jets this year, and are reported to have taped signals since 2000. Yet NE Head Coach Bill Belichick was recently named AP Coach of the Year for his cheating-fueled 18-1 season and there was nary a peep from the fans. Fans did revel when the cheating Patriots lost the Superbowl, but the outrage directed toward the Patriots was tempered. Maybe football fans do care, just not very much.
New Orleans Saints coach Jim Haslett recently insinuated that the “Steel Curtain” Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s, one of the most revered dynasties in all sport, were juiced. The backlash? Lacking. No noise was made over his allegations.
This disparity of attitude also extends to sports writers. Why did Shawn Merriman place second in 2007 Defensive Player of the Year voting after missing 4 of 16 games due to steroid use? How can these football experts justify voting for a cheater? In contrast, baseball’s Mark McGwire, a surefire Hall-of-Famer, was denied entry into Cooperstown for a second consecutive year due to steroid allegations.
Some (myself included) believe that sports serve as a microcosm of the American mentality, so a rise in a sport’s popularity reflects the changing demands of the public. Football has replaced baseball as the most popular sport in America, making it the new “American Pastime.” So, does football’s supremacy reflect a growing ambivalence and general acceptance of cheating within our culture? Why haven’t football fans followed the baseball fan’s model and demanded the same accountability out of their stars?