Moral Monsters

Sabrina Little asks the running community to consider how we think and talk about cheating in sports.

By on August 17, 2022 | Leave a reply

It is my second year in the classroom, in my brief stint as a middle school teacher. I am standing in front of my medieval history class about to begin our unit on the Age of Exploration. Suddenly the office manager appears at my door with a man I have never seen before — a man I will encounter frequently over the next few years. He is my assigned United States Anti-Doping (USADA) agent. My students giggle as he escorts me out the door to take a drug test.

The International Drug Testing Pool

This was an awkward day for me — for a person who likes to keep my two worlds of running and academics distinct. It was second in awkwardness only to the time when two anti-doping agents interrupted me during a graduate school interview weekend, and I bumbled through an explanation to my future program director that, while I was not suspected of drug use, I would periodically be tested.

There were other difficult aspects of this process. In three-month intervals, athletes in the USADA Registered Testing Pool are required to submit their projected whereabouts, including a 60-minute daily time window when they will always be available for a test. And we are asked to provide a “training site,” which is not something an ultrarunner has. Instead, I supplied lists of zip codes I planned to run through each day.

Even so, it was worth it. I would pay a much higher cost than these inconveniences to know that the sport is clean. And years later, I remain fastidious about reading labels on my vitamins and asking pointed questions about medicines because having strict liability for whatever you put in your body becomes a sobering notion when you know you could be tested any day, at any time.

One of many training sites. Photo: Sabrina Little

Integrity in Distance Running

Integrity as an athlete is important, and this is for a few reasons. The first is for personal considerations of character. It feels different to know that my accomplishments are indeed my own — that I did them under my own power, without being unscrupulous or making compromises to my character. Second, it is important to live above reproach for the people in my life who have made investments in me. I do not want to let these people down by being a slippery fish.

Third, cheating is not just a personal decision. It erodes the sport itself, since integrity is required from all athletes to make the competition fair. When we cheat, we subvert the terms of success in the sport for everyone.

Integrity in the sport is worth fighting for. I want to make that exceedingly clear because I also want to address how poorly we collectively handle conversations about cheaters, and I want to challenge misunderstandings we have about our own characters.

Cheaters

It is always interesting to observe the running community’s reactions when someone is caught having cheated, or is presumed to have done so. We often collectively respond with shock and horror, acting as though we have identified a moral monster in our midst. And, while I am pleased with our professed allegiance to clean sport, our shock and horror seem to say as much about our naïveté toward humanity as it does about the badness of the transgression.

Regarding cheaters as though they are unlike us, other, or inhuman in some way both (i) excludes them from the human community in a way that prevents them from reconciliation and reformation and (ii) frees us up from the opportunity to self-examine. Upon reflection, we might realize that we are also not completely above reproach in the ways we participate in sport. In fact, for many people, it seems the difference between the athlete caught in a cheating scandal is a difference in degree, rather than a difference in kind, from one’s own tendencies toward cheating.

There are a few suggestions I have for prioritizing integrity in the sport. These include increasing the prevalence of drug testing and having stricter, more uniformly enforced policies for bans, as well as making character education a priority in youth sports. But, to help guide the conversations we have in public spaces about cheating behaviors, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. You are probably not entirely above reproach.

In “Honesty: The Philosophy and Psychology of a Neglected Virtue,” philosopher Christian Miller examines cheating behavior, drawing on empirical work in the area (1). He writes that, while some people do indeed have the vice of dishonesty, most people — the moral majority — do not exhibit the vice of dishonesty, consistently acting deceptively, for the wrong reasons, over time. This is the good news. But most of us do not exhibit the virtue of honesty either, acting well for the right reasons over time and across situations.

Rather, most people reside somewhere in the middle, exhibiting what he calls “mixed character (2).” In some situations, we are inclined to cheat, but not in others. We have some of the right beliefs and feelings toward cheating, but not others. Moreover, it seems that many of us do not want to think of ourselves as cheaters, even if we sometimes do it. Miller writes elsewhere about how, when opportunities are available for us to cheat, we may take them, but in a limited way. We hedge just a little bit so we can profit from cheating yet still explain it away to ourselves, preserving our self-conceptions as honest people (3).

This is a complex picture. Or, at least, it is more complicated than the good guys and bad guys narrative we prefer. The big takeaway is that most people regularly exhibit deficiencies regarding their honesty — something we should probably take seriously in how we talk about cheating in sport. Maybe these deficiencies are not detectable in a USADA drug test. But there are other ways to lack integrity, such as by fudging training numbers, exaggerating performances, cutting courses, or failing to report data errors you notice in official race results. Maybe you are a different athlete when someone is watching you, versus when you are alone. Furthermore, maybe you have not had an occasion to cheat in some way, but if given the opportunity with a low likelihood of being caught, are you certain you would not do so?

With these things in mind, it would be worthwhile to examine the ways we individually fail to think, act, and feel with integrity in the sport, rather than to merely admonish the outliers and carry on without self-appraisal.

2. You are probably not great at judging your own character.

Social psychologist Roy Baumeister describes an interesting phenomenon in his book “Evil (4).” He points out that those who harm others often consider themselves not perpetrators, but victims themselves (5). They are victims of circumstances or of misunderstanding. They acted badly, not because they are bad people but because they were put in tough situations and did the best that they could.

I suspect that this is the psychology that sustains many bad actions, such as cheating behaviors. For example, I may be inclined to think that my life is super busy (unfairly so!), so I am leveling the playing field by taking an illicit supplement or by cutting the course (just a little!). These thoughts justify my bad actions to myself.

People often wonder aloud how cheaters cheat without any qualms. Well, maybe many cheaters do have qualms. But in other cases, cheating behavior can be buoyed by self-deception and one’s propensity to explain away those harms. For this reason, it can be valuable to have close friends who hold us accountable to bad actions, and to help us see these actions as they really are.

3. We tend to empathize more with people who look like us.

Cognitive scientist Paul Bloom is well-known for, among many things, his critique of treating empathy as an inscrutable guide to moral action. He writes the following, “Empathy is biased; we are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look like us or share our ethnic or national background (6).”

Recently, there was a well-publicized case of a beloved American runner caught doping. Many people pointed out that the American running public was more forgiving and receptive to this athlete’s plight than we often are to international athletes. We empathized with her and were inclined to listen to her defense.

To be clear, we should listen to the defenses of all convicted athletes. And if the anti-doping process is too stringent, then it is too stringent for everyone. It is important to set and maintain uniform standards regardless of how we feel about the runner involved. Our feelings are not always a trustworthy guide for justice.

4. Shame in the public square is unwieldy.

It used to be the case that when someone did something wrong, this person was held accountable locally, within their communities by the people who knew them and were invested in them. These days, our public square is online. We are held accountable by people we know, but strangers, too.

There are some benefits to this system. Athletes are held responsible for past indiscretions and cannot quietly enter races undetected. But there are problems, too. Public shame in digital spaces is unwieldy. It involves anonymous and often outsized critiques, and there is a digital record of wrongs that persists indefinitely as a googleable history of a person’s transgressions.

My worry is that this leaves little room for grace, redemption, or personal growth. It prevents people from feeling sorry and making amends. Making mistakes, and learning from them, is part of what it means to be human. We should think about how ‘human’ the repercussions for cheating currently are in our online public spaces. Extending grace is not something that happens by accident.

June 2022 - Kendall Mountain - Doe at sunset

A doe at sunset on Kendall Mountain. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

Final Thoughts

To be clear, we need to take integrity seriously in sport. This might mean lifetime bans or steep financial repercussions. It might mean something else. But we also need to acknowledge that balancing justice and grace in cheating situations is difficult. It is challenging to both convey no tolerance for certain actions (such as for taking drugs) but also not shirk our humanity in how we treat those who do these things. Moreover, we should not assume we are above reproach in all respects. Conversations about cheating should be broadened to take seriously the defects in our own characters and involve a little more self-examination.

Call for Comments

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References/Notes

  1. Christian Miller. 2021. Honesty: The Philosophy and Psychology of a Neglected Virtue. Oxford University Press, 251-273.
  2. Christian Miller. 2021. Honesty: The Philosophy and Psychology of a Neglected Virtue, 269.
  3. Christian Miller. 2018. The Character Gap: How Good Are We? Oxford University Press, 130-139. See also Christian Miller. 2021. Honesty: The Philosophy and Psychology of a Neglected Virtue, p. 250 for a more complete explanation of our motivations while cheating.
  4. This is a cute title for a book.
  5. Roy Baumeister. (1999) Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. Henry Holt and Company, 51.
  6. Paul Bloom. 2014. Against Empathy. Boston Review.
Sabrina Little

Sabrina Little is a monthly columnist for iRunFar. Sabrina has been writing at the intersection of virtue, character, and sport for the past several years. She has her doctorate in Philosophy from Baylor University and works as an assistant professor at Christopher Newport University in Virginia. Sabrina is a trail and ultrarunner for HOKA and DryMax. She is a 5-time US champion and World silver medalist, and she previously held American records in the 24-hour and 200K distances.