The Fine Art of Getting Away With It
More than 2,000 years before Mike Tyson bit off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear and was disqualified in the boxing ring, Eupolus of Thessaly, a boxer in the Olympics of 388 BC, bribed three of his opponents to take dives.
Historians consider Eupolus’ crime the first recorded act of cheating in sports. History also tells of how wide the chasm was between the way Olympic champions and also-rans were treated back in the day.
Winners were afforded adoring parades before their home folk, prizes of lavish meals, the finest olive oil, theater seats and sex partners. Losers, as the Greek poet Pindar wrote, would “slink through the back alleys to their mothers.”
Fame, perks, financial payoffs and other rich incentives of victory continue to motivate deceit in sports. The passing of time has only enhanced the creative methods cheaters employ. They vary from the pervasive use of performance-enhancing drugs at the highest levels of sports, to other forms of “gamesmanship” in the professional ranks down to preteens, as sports at all levels gain increased visibility.
Consider Mark Schlereth, who spent six seasons as a Denver Broncos offensive lineman, protecting quarterback John Elway en route to two Super Bowl victories. In a 1998 playoff game at Kansas City, Schlereth and his fellow linemen coated their arms and the backs of their jerseys in Vaseline. The Chiefs’ defenders couldn’t grab onto the slimy Broncos and quickly complained to officials. It was quite a scene, Schlereth recalls, as officials used towels on the sidelines to wipe down the oily visitors in a game Denver would ultimately win, 14-10, on its way to a Super Bowl triumph.
“Did I grease up my jersey, and use sticky substances on my gloves? You’re damn right,” Schlereth said recently. “What you call cheating is a fine line. It’s an interesting line. What we did, in the locker room, is called being creative. Certain cheating is snickered at, or applauded.”
One of the most far-reaching cases of cheating was the East German government’s “State Plan 14.25,” developed in 1974, which led to the systematic doping of thousands of unsuspecting athletes in training centers. East German scientists created oral turinabol, a pale blue pill that was a strong, hard-to-detect steroid. As athletes built lean muscle mass, improved endurance and accelerated workout recovery time, they also ingested androstenedione, testosterone and other experimental drugs. It paid off at the Olympics. After the East Germans won 25 medals at the 1968 Summer Games, the country’s medal count jumped to 66 in 1972, 90 in 1976 and to 126 in 1980. Cheating exists in far milder forms, as well, athletes and coaches say.
Basketball and soccer players “flop,” faking a foul or exaggerating the severity of their contact with an opponent.
“Reggie Miller was the master of drawing fouls that weren’t there,” longtime NBA guard Steve Kerr said. “We think of that as fair and square.”
Take baseball, where “tricks of the trade” have a long, proud history.
When his closer was caught cheating in the 1988 playoffs, then-Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda concluded there was only one way to successfully appeal his top reliever’s three-game suspension.
Lasorda revealed recently that he called A. Bartlett Giamatti, then the commissioner of baseball, and argued that a chemist friend had concluded that closer Jay Howell’s use of pine tar in a game was not that serious a crime. “My chemist friend says pine tar is a liquid form of rosin,” Lasorda said he told Giamatti.
Nobody is calling to outlaw the rosin bag behind the pitching mound, Lasorda argued, so why should Howell be punished so harshly?
Giamatti reduced the suspension to two games, and Howell, who also apologized to the commissioner, proceeded to save Game 4 of the World Series against Oakland, helping the Dodgers win their last championship. “I never had a chemist friend,” Lasorda said recently.
Manipulating a home-field advantage dates at least to the 1800s, when the Philadelphia Phillies used a telegraph wire to steal signs from opposing teams.
This season, Milwaukee Brewers infielder Jeff Cirillo accused the Colorado Rockies of using illegal waterlogged baseballs at home games. The runs-per-game average at Coors Field has shrunk from 15 in 1995 to nine this year, and this season there have been a major league-leading 11 shutouts at Coors Field, which, because of its altitude, has long been known as a park where balls travel much farther than at others.
The Rockies now place baseballs in a humidor before games to lessen the effects of the mile-high elevation. Cirillo implied shenanigans with the humidor could affect scores. “What if the Rockies get behind by a lot of runs?” Cirillo asked. “Say they break out the non-humidor balls, you know what I’m saying?”
In hockey, sometimes the home-field advantage was carried onto the ice.
Marty McSorley, a retired 17-year NHL veteran who won two Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers, recalls something that regularly occurred in the old arena where the Buffalo Sabres played. A Sabres trainer would stand by a door along the rink and kick it whenever the puck would be sliding along the rail -- a move that could force the puck into the slot and give the home team a scoring opportunity, McSorley said.
“That’s an unfair advantage,” he said. “That’s cheating.”
Officials with the NFL’s New York Giants and baseball’s 1987 World Series-winning Minnesota Twins have also been accused by opponents of manipulating winds in their stadiums by opening and closing stadium doors. In the Twins’ case, a stadium official allegedly shifted air conditioning vent directions to blow against or behind baseballs inside the Metrodome, depending on whether the Twins were hitting or fielding.
There is one role model for ethical play in professional sports, said Peter Roby, director for Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society.
“Golf stresses to its players, from a very early age, that the integrity of the game is in their hands alone,” Roby said. “You have to read the rules, you have to know the rules and, as a participant, you are a guardian of the game. That focus on integrity needs to be instilled in all of our athletes, no matter what the sport.”
In pro golf, players will accept stroke penalties for violations as sensitive as moving a ball in the rough less than a half-inch while picking up a pine needle, or striking a few grains of sand in a trap on a backswing -- as happened to Michelle Wie in the Women’s British Open this summer.
Among amateurs, though, the rules of golf are open to interpretation. In July, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady played in a golf outing in Maine with former presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush. Afterward, Brady told reporters he was surprised by how many mulligans the former leaders of the free world took.
Brady cautioned, however, that there was no cheating.
Times staff writers Helene Elliott, Jim Peltz and David Wharton, and the Associated Press, contributed to this report.
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