Win at all costs: The culture of cheating

After the last spate of dangerous hits, the issue of player conduct, safety and sportsmanship has raised its ugly head again.

After the last spate of dangerous hits deemed worthy of suspension by Brendan Shanahan and his committee, and by the weakly punished acts (Shea Weber, Duncan Keith) the issue of player conduct, safety and sportsmanship has raised its ugly head again.

But the NHL is by no means alone in pro sports when it comes to abuses of the rules and dangerous actions by players and coaches. The NFL has recently had Bounty-gate and now allegations of spying, and other sports like baseball and cycling continue to struggle with performance enhancing drugs.

So why do these rule violations continue to occur.  Professional sport is a high reward line of work. Money, fame and a sports culture of “win at all costs” drive athletes to push the limits whether it’s finding the best training methods, the most aerodynamic or powerful equipment and clothing, or bending the rules to get the edge on their opponents. But this also extends down into the amateur and youth sport where athletes model their behaviour on the pros. One answer of why athletes and coaches do this comes from “game theory” experiments in psychology and may have to do with more than just money and sports culture – it may be an inescapable fact about the way people are.

Game theory is the study of how players in a game choose strategies they hope will maximize their return in anticipation of the strategies chosen by the other players in the game. Research shows that when the game is played just once, or over a fixed number of rounds without the players being allowed to communicate, cheating becomes common. However, when the game is played over an unknown number of rounds the most common strategy is that players begin by cooperating and then do whatever the other player does. Even more cooperation can be established when players are allowed to accrue experience with the other players in order to establish trust. But if defection starts to occur with one member cheating, then this builds momentum there is a cascading sequence of cheating throughout the system.

So what solutions can be used to temper, if not eliminate, these rule violations. More education on ethics of sport for all levels of athletics is needed. Also, increase substantially the penalty for these transgressions. To date penalties for cheating, rule violations or dangerous plays have been fairly lenient. Suspensions for two, three, five regular season games or small fines for dangerous hits or intent to injure are a drop in the bucket for millionaire players and coaches. And if one player gets away with a light punishment, then others see the result and defect from the rules leading to a cascade of defection and soon everyone is forced to take performance enhancing drugs (to stay in the league) or make borderline dangerous hits to stay on the team.

The Raffi Torres suspension has to be considered at least a first step in addressing this issue in hockey. He is a repeat offender its true, but even first time offenders need to be dealt much, much stiffer sentences if the rules are going to have any effect.

Of course cheating or dangerous play makes pro athletes degrade the concept of sportsmanship and creates poor role models for youth sports, but there is a deeper significance on the integrity of sport.  Cheating or deliberate intent-to-injury playing is a self-defeating idea in sport. When this kind of behaviour occurs, the fabric of the game breaks down. Sports only hold together because they have rules of play. If one or more athletes disregard the rules, it isn’t a viable game anymore.


Kerry Senchyna holds a bachelor of science degree in kinesiology and is owner of West Coast Kinesiology in Maple Ridge. (

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