Cheating confidential

We polled 83 athletes across sports to see how low they can go

Originally Published: May 30, 2013
By Staff | ESPN The Magazine

ArmstrongGeorge Burns/Getty ImagesLance Armstrong's use of PEDs was considered despicable by many athletes.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's June 10 Taboo issue. Subscribe today!

WHEN OUR CONFIDENTIAL TEAM recently fanned out to talk taboo, we found that cheating is in the eye of the beholder ... or flopper, or juicer. Many of the 83 athletes we spoke to anonymously (from MLB and the NBA, NFL, NHL and WNBA) attempted to massage the meaning of the term itself. "I wouldn't use the word 'cheating,' per se," says an MLB star. "It's more like we do anything and everything possible to win and still be able to sleep at night with a clear conscience." Then he chuckled: "And I'm fine with not even being able to sleep the whole night."


Rank these cheating scandals in order of seriousness.
In a 2009 Harris Poll, Tiger Woods edged out Michael Jordan as America's favorite athlete. But after his affairs came to light, Woods, in a 2012 Forbes poll, ranked just below Michael Vick as the nation's most disliked athlete. Our poll? Most players scoffed and ranked his transgression the least despicable among a list of five scandals. Says an NBA player: "His cheating story is like a boring Tuesday in pro sports." Instead, the majority handed their "top" votes to Tim Donaghy and Lance Armstrong.

scandalIllustration by Daniel Nyari

If you were told that part of your training regimen would someday be considered illegally performance-enhancing, would you stop or continue until it was officially banned?
Several athletes gave a response similar to that of this NFL standout: "If it's not illegal, it's not illegal." In fact, 51.4 percent said they would wait for an official decree from their league. "You play the game the way it's allowed to be played," says one MLB power hitter. "I'm going to do everything the rulebook allows up until the day they hand me another rulebook."

drugsIllustration by Daniel Nyari

If you knew you wouldn't get caught, would you use PEDs?
Most of our respondents were disgusted by this question, with 90.4 percent answering no. "That's crazy to even think about," says an MLB pitcher. But the other 9.6 percent went the other way. "Of course!" says an NFL All-Pro. "I would use all types of drugs if I could. Think about it: If you're playing against guys who are taking steroids and you don't take them, they'll dominate you."

pedsIllustration by Daniel Nyari

A. Have you ever suspected during a game that a ref was on the take?
With MLB, NFL and NHL players, only 5.4 percent said yes. But the 17 hoops players we spoke with have less faith in their refs, which bumped the overall yes vote to 12.3 percent. "With bigger teams like the Lakers, the Heat, the Knicks, I get suspicious -- 50-50 calls always seem to swing those teams' way," says an NBA vet.

B. Have you ever suspected during a game that a player was on the take?
No NBA, WNBA or NHL players have wondered if a colleague was picking up some side cash. But enough NFL and MLB players answered yes that the total crept up to 5.5 percent. Says one NFL All-Pro: "I won't share details, because I'm not that kind of person. But my answer to this question is hell yes."

tbdIllustration by Daniel Nyari

True or false: If you ain't cheating, you ain't trying.
If you want to feel better about the sports landscape, read the results for this question. Almost two-thirds said false: "Cheating actually means you're not trying to play the game the way it should be, that you're trying to cut corners," says a WNBA superstar. "Plus, cheaters never win." (That sound you hear is the other 33.8 percent of our respondents groaning in unison.)

tryingIllustration by Daniel Nyari

Of these things, which do you consider cheating?
The bottom line is, these dubious acts don't draw nearly as much ire from athletes as they seem to from fans. Sure, we detected mild outrage over NHL dives and phony MLB HBPs. ("Both of those are complete BS," says a WNBA player. "Then again, last minute of a game, I'm probably going to do either one of those things to win.") But for the most part, our respondents sounded a lot like this NFL player: "None of these things are cheating. They are, uh, exaggerating."

tbdIllustration by Daniel Nyari

Reporting by: Patrick Cain, Louise K. Cornetta, Craig Custance, Matthew Ehalt, Dan Friedell, Molly Knight, Theresa Manahan, Doug McIntyre, Matthew Muench and Stacey Pressman

Follow The Mag on Twitter (@ESPNmag) and like us on Facebook.