By GARY SHELTON
You love your alma mater. You remember the days walking past the library, smelling the spring air. You remember hanging around the student union and drinking milk shakes. You remember the football stadium on Saturdayafternoons, and the way you would paint your face and scream for your team.
It’s your school, after all. You still know the alma mater. You stay in touch with old classmates. You still wear the school caps and t-shirts.
But how do you feel about them if they cheat?
How do you feel if they get caught?
Do you defend it like you were a nose tackle on the goal line? Do you shrug and announce that “everybody does it?” Do you blame it all on a rogue assistant coach who was just trying to get ahead. Do you decide that if the NCAA was really fair, it would investigate your rival, too? Do you decry the rules as unfair, because coaches get millions and a tailback can’t even get a pizza, let alone a Mustang?
This, of course, is the problem. In our society, we fear losing a heck of a lot more than we fear cheating. You can forgive a $50-dollar handshake a lot more than a five-loss season. The coach is far more likely to hang onto his job if he’s found to be simply a good shopper.
Over time, and over the transgressions, we have lost our outrage. Do you know a Patriots fan who doesn’t defend Spygate?
Besides, what is cheating? Is cheating giving a kid an illegal ride home? Or, perhaps, if a booster were to pay for an add-on to his home?
Once, at the University of Florida, there was a sign in the stadium that proclaimed, with a bit of arrogance, “Hell, Yes, We Cheat.” At Clemson, the cheating in the old days used to be so prevalent there was a slogan called IPTAY (“I pay a thousand a year.”). The local joke was that it really meant “It’s Probation Time Again, Ya’ll.”
Former FSU coach Bobby Bowden once had victories stripped away because some players cheated in an online music course. Yeah, cheating is bad. But did Bowden — the school had taken steps to remove him from such things — really know about an online internet course? I’ve said it before: The only thing Bowden knew about the 1812 Overture is that it actually sounded better in 1812.
Of course, Bowden had other incidents — Free Shoes University — when his toes were across the line. So, yeah, you can chide him if you wish. Or not.
Okay, there is outright cheating, which is an attempt to buy victory. And there is the kind of cheating that is called “gamesmanship.” And there is cheating in a lab with a hypodermic needle you plunge into your posterior (which is called “Canseco-ing.”)
The reason I bring this up is two fold. One was the spat between Tony Dungy and Deion Sanders over stealing signals recently. The other is the St. Louis Cardinals hacking into the computers of the Houston Astros.
And hoo-boy, here we go again.
Is it cheating if a pitcher applies vaseline to a baseball in order to get a batter out? (Of course it is.)
Is it cheating if a batter stuffs tennis balls into the barrel of his bat (You betcha.)
Is it cheating if a bicyclist competes in a race with blood that is not his own. (Yes, and it’s a little creepy, too.)
And so it goes. I remember talking to Rays’ catcher John Flaherty about this after Albert Belle was caught corking his bat. The whole world shrugged, as if to say he wasn’t trying if he wasn’t cheating. But Flaherty was adamant. There are rules against corking the bat for a reason. The spitball is outlawed for a reason.
Remember the early days of steroids. A writer caught Dante Bichette with joy juice in his locker. And the world turned … on the writer. That was before we started taking notice of Barry Bonds’ runaway skull, or of the fact that Mark McGwire might have been chased out of the league quickly if he didn’t juice.
Is it cheating when one figure skater has another one whacked on the knee? (Yes.)
Is it cheating when an overaged pitcher competes in Little League? (Absolutely.)
Is it cheating with A-Rod tries to take a shortcut to immortality? (Are you kidding?)
And so it goes. We had Bountygate and Spygate and Deflategate. Dennis Lundy of Northwestern fumbled at the goal line for fun and profit. Rosie Ruiz took a short-cut.
Once, Derek Jeter – perhaps the most honorable man in baseball — was playing against the Rays. The pitch came in tight, and Jeter howled. He called for the trainer to tend to him, then took his base. What ump was going to stand in Jeter’s way.
The thing is, replays showed that ball never hit Jeter. It hit the handle of his bat. Everything else was just Academy Award time.
So was Jeter wrong? If the ump was going to give him the base, shouldn’t he take it. Hey, if the ump called a ball strike three, Jeter would have lived with it, right? So why not live with being hit by a ball even when you weren’t?
Is having eight men on your team conspire to throw the World Series cheating? (Of course.)
Is betting on baseball, and yes, on your own team, cheating? (Certainly.)
Is competing for the gold in the special Olympics cheating, even though none of your teammates are handicapped. (Yes, and it’s particularly loathsome.)
So let me get this straight. Stealing signals is accepted, because sharing secrets is good? Hey, Tony Dungy was the most honorable man I was ever around. If someone were to send him the gameplan (a Tennessee coach did this once before a game against Florida), I think he’d throw it away. But stealing signals is thought of as simple gamesmanship, nothing more, Dungy pointed out. It wasn’t cheating.
And,because Tony is Tony, America believed him. But what if Deion had accused Belichick. It would be different. Maybe Belichick has earned that. Maybe Dungy. But the point is that interpretation of cheating can be a moving line.
Ah, but if Dungy had used electronic equipment, the way that Bill Belichick did, it would have been terrible. Right?
And then there are the Cardinals, who went into the Astros’ database some 50 times. Who do the Cardinals think they are? Russia? Is Putin in charge?
Is using carbon-fiber blades to run on, like Oscar Pistorius did, cheating? (Probably.)
Is setting up a winning kick in soccer with your hand, like Maradona did, cheating? (Yes.)
Is carrying a vial of fake blood, to help you embellish rugby injuries, cheating. (Sure it is.)
When I was young, I knew a coach who was very old. But in his day, he had been quite the hoot. He used to specialize in breaking rules before they were rules.
For instance, he once lined up two quarterbacks behind the center, who was instructed who to snap it to. He had his team with footballs on the jerseys, so the defense couldn’t tell who had the ball. In basketball, he had one guy sit on another’s shoulders until it was outlawed. And so on. Was that cheating? Or being creative?
Is it cheating for using gymnasts who are too young, rather than too old, the way China did.
Is it cheating to compete in the Olympics as a woman even though, technically, you’re a man (Stella Walsh). Yeah, I think that might be the height of deceit. I think Stella’s ex-husband might agree.
Is it cheating to have a sleazebucket named Nevin Shapiro provide cash and hookers to your players? (Sure, it is.)
The thing is, cheating goes on and rules-breaking continues. Some of us are naive enough to think those are the same thing. Some of us are overwhelmed by Pete Rose and Marion Jones and Tonya Harding and Bill Belichick and Alex Rodriguez and Ben Johnson and Danny Almonte and Baylor and Louisville basketball and the rest. Some of us are outraged, and some just shrug and consider it okay if you don’t get caught.
Some of us would like the game to be clean.
Given a world that is constantly looking for shortcuts, is that too much to ask?
(Gary Shelton is one of America’s most-honored and distinguished sports journalists. Gary has spornamed the Associated Press Sports Editors’ No. 1 national sports columnist twice, has been a top five finisher five ot,her times and was chosen by sports editors in the top 10 columnists eight different years. He has been selected Florida’s Sportswriter of the Year six times. He was a columnist with the St. Peterburg/Tampa Bay Times for 25 years after joining the newspaper from The Miami Herald. Gary has covered 29 Super Bowls and 10 Winter and Summer Olympics, The Masters, the World Series, the Stanley Cup Finals and national championship in college football and basketball — all on multiple occasions over the past four decades. He currently has his own website — garysheltonsports.com — blanketing all sports in the Tampa Bay area. He is among the most creative and thoughtful and opinionated, and hard-headed, columnists you’ll ever read. And funny. And one of the good guys. Don’t ever miss his columns, interviews and stories on garysheltonsports.com. Gary has agreed to be an occasional contributor to woodypaige.com.)