Once upon a time, it was easier to believe that cheating in sports was something rare.
But somewhere between “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” and Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson’s yellow-tinged eyes, many of us have become jaundiced ourselves about winners, wondering if they won honestly.
Maybe it was the Loveland, Colo., high school coach telling his players to apply Pam, the cooking spray, to their football uniforms to make them harder to tackle.
Maybe it was over-age Little Leaguer Danny Almonte. Or the six superballs that once bounced from inside Yankee Craig Nettles’ shattered bat, or the subway Rosie Ruiz allegedly took to “win” the Boston Marathon in 1980.
These days, it doesn’t take much to turn storybook into suspicion.
It happened at the Kentucky Derby this month when a gelding named Funny Cide won the Derby.
Funny Cide went on to win the Preakness too, with jockey Jose Santos holding up two fingers in triumph – and to show he wasn’t concealing anything suspicious.
Who can blame him? The Preakness followed a tumultuous week for Funny Cide handlers. A Kentucky Derby photo showed a shadow in Santos’ whip hand. Was it a buzzer, an illegal device to shock horses into running faster?
No matter that Santos has a reputation as one of the most honest jockeys in racing, or that he’d have to be a magician to have hidden the charger and switch whip hands three times down the stretch.
An investigation cleared Santos, showing the dark spot in the photo to be nothing more sinister than someone’s overactive imagination. Santos and Funny Cide will try to win the Belmont on Saturday and claim the first triple crown in 25 years.
Trouble is, it wouldn’t have surprised everybody if Santos had cheated. But what is stunning, however, is how quickly the public – and Churchill Downs race officials, to some degree – turned a shadow into an inquiry.
That’s because “we’ve come to expect it,” said Jay Coakley, sports sociology professor at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs.
Cynicism is easy to come by these days. Four years ago, a jockey named Billy Patin won the Arkansas Derby. But Patin was fined $2,500 and suspended for five years after he was found guilty of using a small, handheld buzzer. The horse also was disqualified and the owner ordered to return the prize money.
We’ve been burned too often by cheaters in sports, which is somehow worse than being burned by cheaters in other areas of life.
“In the past we’ve had this romantic notion that sport was supposed to be this realm where these limits were respected and supposed to be pure,” Coakley said. “Sport built character because of its purity. We have discovered over the past 20-30 years that it is not the case. All these people who had these romantic notions about sport are disappointed, and express this disappointment by questioning and condemning the character of individual athletes.”
After all, none other than Earl Warren, the late U.S. Supreme Court chief justice, believed in sports’ inspirational – and untainted – nature.
“I always turn to the sports pages first, which records people’s accomplishments,” Warren once said. “The front page has nothing but man’s failures.”
If Warren had lived two more years, he would have picked up his paper to read this: a Soviet modern pentathlete named Borys Onyshchenko (Ahnis-shenko) busted at the Montreal Olympics for rigging his fencing sword with a secret button.
“It recorded a touch when he didn’t really touch anyone,” said David Wallechinsky, Olympic historian and author of The Complete Book of the Olympics. “People started to call him ‘Boris Dis-Onyshchenko’ after that.”
Ruiz wasn’t first in marathon infamy. In the 1904 Games in St. Louis, marathoner Fred Lorz crossed the finish line first in 3 hours and 13 minutes. He even got his picture taken with Alice Roosevelt, the president’s daughter, before it was discovered Lorz had hopped into a car after nine miles and re-entered the race at mile 20, Wallechinsky wrote in his book.
Lorz said it was a lark. Judges didn’t share the joke. They banned him from running marathons, though Lorz eventually returned.
In 1980, the U.S.-boycotted Moscow Games supposedly offered a home-field advantage to Soviet track stars. Team officials were accused of opening a stadium tunnel door and letting air whoosh through whenever a Soviet triple-jumper made his runway approach.
In football, NFL players could teach high schoolers about jersey modification.
For instance, it’s common knowledge among pros that silicone spray out-slicks Pam, or anything else you can find in your kitchen. Just ask Randy Cross, San Francisco’s former all-pro center.
“Silicone works so much better,” he said. “It’s extremely slippery.”
“From what I understand.”
In his 13 years, Cross said he saw few things that were illegal. However, “you do tend to get numb to the gray-area things after a while.”
Cross saw players use a razor to take stitches out of their jerseys.
“A couple cuts in a few places and suddenly your jersey rips off,” he said.
Perhaps the NFL’s nastiest player was Conrad Dobler, St. Louis Cardinals guard, gridiron’s Hannibal Lecter.
“He’d bite and scratch,” Cross said of the Dobler legend. “He was the worst. The heck with football rules – there were rules of society and conduct he violated.”
The NFL has tried to eliminate cheating with new rules. Trouble is, there are so many of them it earned the nickname No Fun League.
“It’s hurting the NFL now,” Cross said. “It’s over-legislated.”
Players still use silicone, Cross said.
“If they say they don’t, they’d be lying,” he said.
Water polo players have been known to grease up with sunscreen to keep opponents from getting a grip, and officials routinely check women’s fingernail length.
“The worst thing I’ve heard of, on the men’s side, is having their privates just thrashed or squeezed or punched or kicked,” said Eric Velazques, USA Water Polo media director. “It’s pretty debilitating.”
Baseball is famous for its less-painful tales of deceit.
Pitchers Gaylord Perry and Joe Niekro were notorious for doctoring the ball, and Whitey Ford even had his own concoction for what he called a “gunk ball”: baby oil, turpentine and resin. ESPN.com reported Ford kept the substance in a roll-on dispenser. The story goes that Yogi Berra mistakenly once used it for deodorant, gluing his arms to his sides.
New questions have been raised about Bobby Thomson’s famous “shot heard ’round the world” home run that won the 1951 National League pennant for the New York Giants. The Giants admit they had a sign-stealing system that year. When asked if he was tipped off to Ralph Branca’s pitch, Thomson would not give a definitive answer.
Hitters drill holes to fill bats with cork, sawdust, superballs. Sometimes cheating is even simpler. Former Giant John McGraw would grab the belt loops of runners tagging up at third, or he’d trip baserunners.
Stadium crews have been known to water down baselines to slow base-stealers; the Colorado Rockies use a humidor to alter baseballs so they won’t fly as easily out of the park.
In hockey, players cut out the palms of their gloves to help hold opponents, and curve their stick blades to make the puck do unnatural things.
We’re not even talking about drugs, or judging or betting scandals. That’s another story.
Why is winning so important that players cheat, now seemingly more than ever?
“We have emphasized success … to such a degree in our culture,” Coakley said, “that we now have put individuals in circumstances where they look for creative ways to succeed and in some ways are crossing some boundaries.”
Stakes are high. Money is big. So is the prestige of being an elite athlete who wins often, if not fairly.
“In order to maintain their status as athletes, you have to continue to perform at a high level,” Coakley said. “And all of us know we can’t, on our own, perform at that high level without some help.”