The Unraveling of Our Fandom: Sports and Cheating

JP Pelosi wonders whether his admiration of professional athletes may have been misplaced all along.

Grantland’s chief editor, Bill Simmons, last week wrote a column that lamented our ability as fans to tell the difference between professional athletes who cheat and those who don’t. Simmons wants drug testing across the board, in all the major sports, because until that happens we’re essentially watching a cruel hoax, an uneven playing field where the fiendish and unethical are outperforming others by cheating—by injecting new blood, popping pills, spraying weird substances under their tongue, or whatever else. For all we know Adrian Peterson has had robotic parts inserted into his knee and is, in fact, a cyborg. There are so many unknowns. The Sports Guy is right.

AP Photo/Seth Perlman

The idea that playing professional sports is a supreme endeavor, and an occupation most human beings can only dream of experiencing, is at the heart of athletes taking substances to boost their performance. Because with such elitism, created by the media, corporate sponsors, and us, the fans, comes unfathomable amounts of money. Like the greedy bankers who desperately sought the conquest of their elitist game, which caused the global financial crisis, pro athletes gamble their livelihood for a chance at obscene riches and grandeur. In some cases, it simply comes down to wanting that inordinate level of money for a longer period of time. In short, the pursuit of self-interest has horse-collar tackled personal responsibility in sports and no flag has been thrown, until perhaps now.

For some, like basketball maestro Steve Nash, outstanding physical fitness has kept them at the top of their sport longer than most. Or at least that’s what naive fans hope. We hope the great Nash is cleaner than the cut of his new wave hair style. To this point, that’s all we’ve been able to do, hope our sporting heroes inspire us each week with their pure dedication to craft. And yet, as we learn more about drug testing, and the Lance Armstrongs, and ask questions about the Ray Lewises, we wonder how many of these so-called superstars, people we have always admired for their prowess, are abusing our trust—as well as their bodies—by cheating with performance enhancing drugs. We wonder how many, and we wonder why.


As a fan, I care less about what these players are doing to their bodies (because they surely don’t care how many beers I drink during the Super Bowl), and more about the fact that they feel there’s nothing wrong with destroying our hope. And I think that’s what Simmons is arguing, too. Being a professional athlete is a higher calling in many ways, one that millions of people (especially kids) aspire too. I’m not saying these guys are more important to society than doctors, or farmers, or the people who build our homes, for example, but they offer us a symbol of how dedication, hard work, and passion might overcome all obstacles. Or so I thought. I hoped. I naively placed these athletes on a pedestal, as you may have too.

The truth is, so many of these so-called professional people have no problem tainting our ideals about sports. They dedicated themselves to a single pursuit, yes, but by applying different values to it, and with a moral center so skewed, that winning was no longer a goal—it was the only thing that mattered to them, honesty and integrity be damned.

It turns out the idea of looking up to athletes, as most real sports fans do, is a fool’s game. For me, that’s more than 30 years of admiring pro sportsmen down the toilet. How can we look at sports the same way again when we don’t know who’s winning fairly?

Now, I hope John Elway’s arm launched footballs downfield to Shannon Sharpe without any performance enhancement, or that Larry Bird knocked down 50 effortless points without popping some under-the-counter supplement. These aren’t accusations—they’re purely statements of hope. Or my entire childhood has been undermined, you see. Because like so many kids then, and now, sports has meant the world to me. It still does. And yet, amid the constant conversations of drug cheats inside professional arenas, I’m wishing I loved chess, fishing, or darts more.

I’m less disappointed by the scandal of all this, and more defeated that so many pros view sports differently than I do. They apparently don’t care about the endeavor—the journey from unknown to elite, or the fulfilment of a lofty dream—the way I thought they did. They care more about the end result. They want fame and fortune, I presume, without the hard work. They lust for the accolades and adulation, and will do whatever it takes to have them, even if it means cheating.

And here I was thinking that real pros, true stars, those acting on a childhood vision, practiced without enhancement because anything else voided the experience. I thought that cheating was only an option for the likes of Canadian sprinter, Ben Johnson, who clearly didn’t consider himself good enough to win an Olympic gold medal on his own merit. Too bad for him, I thought. He needed to cheat. But LeBron James, with his impossible physique, and his unique command of the ball, surely doesn’t require anything more than a healthy diet, a weight room, and a good night’s sleep to excel the way he does.

AP Photo/Gary Kemper, File

I hope.

Was I naive to think that sports were so pure?

Was I really so foolish to think “professionals” thought more of us than they seem to, or of being honest at earning their crust?

For those who have long admired their parents for the sweat and tears they poured into their own work, simply to put roofs over heads and food on the table, the acts of these cheating athletes is especially shameful. Suddenly the possibility that cheating is rampant in sports, and that we’ve bowed before its stars and cheered them like gladiators, seems disgusting. Our collective praise as a society has been grossly misplaced.

Listen, I loved playing sports growing up. I wanted to be a professional sportsman, for the thrill of competing, to test myself, to pursue a better version of myself, and to enjoy the spoils that come only through hard work. And while I maybe had the skills and athleticism, I never had the size or power. Perhaps, in another era, one where the stakes weren’t as high and therefore the temptation to cheat wasn’t so great, I may have had a shot at being a pro. I would have relished the chance, as I’m sure you would have.

Now, I assume, numerous athletes and prospective pros don’t think that way. They’re not thrilled by the journey, or driven by the pursuit of bettering themselves. They just want the trophy—now! And if the next guy is taking some kind of performance enhancer to obtain that trophy, then they’ll take it too. It’s a sad and desperate game of oneupmanship in which the only real losers are us, the fans.

About JP Pelosi

JP Pelosi is a sports writer and the editor of Why Football Is Cool, a blog about pro football trends, ideas and culture. He has written for The Globe and Mail, The Virginian Pilot, Inside Hoops, The Bleacher Report and Technorati’s football blog The Gridiron Grind.


  1. I fear you haven’t spent any time with elite athletes… It seems that way from what you are saying.

    Two important points about elite athletes and drugs:

    1) It is not about being lazy. It is not about taking a shortcut. These guys who chear are still very talented and very very dedicated. It is not that they don’t want to put the work in. Quite the opposit. They take drugs so that they can make that final 0.1% jump that takes you from “almost the best” to “the best”. It is the tiny margin that takes someone from conteding for a medal and almost guaranteed win.

    2) Most of the time it is not about “a chance at obscene riches and grandeur”. It is about winning. Not for the fame or the money but to be better than everyone else. Yes, some have done it for the money, but most of the time it is about the win. Beating others is all that matters in the mind of an elite athlete. Nothing else. These guys, especaly in non team sports, give everything up for the chance of the win and it takes over there lives. I grew up around top level athletes and I don’t think they are anything to look up to. Yes, they work hard to reach a goal, they have dedication and focus, but all that matters is the win, and like the CEO that tread on others, neglects his/her family and stabs people in the back to get to the top they are not a good roll model, more a reflection of all that is wrong in the world.

  2. The Wet One says:

    Reality sure is a b*tch, ain’t it?

    Sorry about your bubble being burst.

  3. Yes, professional athletes use drugs to improve their performance. But, the only disappointment you should feel is that they’re merely human like you and I and not the superheroes of your youth.
    High School kids are now abusing prescription drugs to increase focus, recall and attention so they can get into the best universities and get the dream job. Well, at least that the long term goal. The short term goals are the good grades that make their parents proud.

    I have a friend that proctors the Bar Exam. Students who are diagnosed with attention deficit disorders are allowed more time on the test. Is it any wonder that the number of law school students diagnosed with these sorts of diseases is on the rise?

    It is human to use whatever advantage you have at your disposal for the accolades of the win.


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