Superstar Sports Players More Likely to Cheat

As the second MLB doping scandal shows, there are not enough disincentives to play clean in the first place

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The first player to be affected by Major League Baseball’s crack-down on those caught using banned performance-enhancing drugs was Milwaukee Brewers’ outfielder Ryan Braun, who was suspended for the rest of the season. One would think that it would be the struggling or fringe players who’d be more likely to cheat, but Braun was a 2011 National League MVP. He has been a star his entire career, beginning in 2007 when he was named the National League Rookie of the Year. So why, of all people, would Braun feel the need to cheat?

(MORE: First Up, Braun: Baseball Starts Suspending Stars for Taking PEDs)

It turns out that those who feel more entitled to win—such as a star major leaguer—are more likely to cheat. In the player’s own mind, his win is a foregone conclusion, so how he gets that win is less important. He forgets about how his actions affect everyone. Instead, he’s focused solely on himself. Over time, he may look at rules as unworthy obstacles;rule-enforcers become the bad guys, not him. It’s a narcissistic justification that goes something like: “I am supposed to win. If people truly understood my greatness, then I wouldn’t have to cheat. But they’re in my way. It’s their fault: they’re making me do this.”

Research conducted by Zoe Chance, a professor of marketing at Yale School of Management, provides additional insight. Chance and colleagues found that, after people cheated on a test, they saw their inflated scores as a true measure of their ability. This is why cheaters are often repeat offenders. They incorporate their ability to cheat into their overall ability to succeed. Perhaps this explains why Ryan Braun didn’t learn his lesson in 2011, when he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs but avoided punishment because of a technicality. Cheaters don’t think about how close they came to disaster the last time – how they were nearly caught – they think “I can get away with this.” They think cheating worked once, and then they count on it working again. Lance Armstrong was the master of this—doping while denouncing those who correctly said he was doping.

(MORE: Lance Armstrong’s Confession and the Psychology of Elite Athletes)

Another reason stars may cheat more: we are more forgiving of their sins. As soon as Braun was suspended, officials from the MLB and the MLB Players Association, immediately said that they look forward to Braun’s return to baseball. Compare that to the player worried about being sent down to the Minors. If he gets caught for drugs, they aren’t going to give him another season. He’s gone for good.

Once caught, star athletes may “come clean” and admit their offenses – but with the money at stake, the self-justifications, the undeserved forgiveness – there are just not enough disincentives to play clean in the first place. After all, we thought that the previous MLB steroid scandal was going to solve the problem once and for all, but here we are again, just five years later. Perhaps we need to try a new tactic – something like that of the Ancient Greeks.

During the fourth century BC, a boxer, Eupolos, was caught rigging Olympics’ boxing matches – the first cheating scandal in the Games’ history. Officials decided to fine the cheating athletes, and used the money to erect 10 large statues of angry Zeus lining the entrance to the Olympic Stadium. At the bottom of every statue was the name of one of the cheating athletes and a description of the offense. In 400 more years of Olympics, there were just a handful of other instances of cheating. So perhaps the next set of MLB fines should go to erecting a statue or two outside the Baseball Hall of Fame. A permanent bronze list of those who were so consumed with winning, that they ultimately lost everything. Most of all, our respect.