Thursday, January 31, 2013

196. So Armstrong lied. Do you?

Most of us are familiar with the common quote about cheating: "If you are not cheating, you're not trying hard enough."

Perhaps tongue-in-cheek, or maybe a form of justification, some have interpreted the axiom to mean that we should do everything in one's power to emerge victorious. Leave no stone unturned-after all, it is only cheating if you get caught.

Lance Armstrong's admission to taking performance-enhancing drugs comes on the heels of the vote by the Major League's baseball writers not to yet enshrine into the Hall of Fame any players from the steroid era in baseball. For all those involved, or thought to be involved, there is controversy, embarrassment and disgrace.

But if cheating can lead to embarrassment and disgrace, why do so many people do it?

Unfortunately, there are many incentives to cheat. Obviously, the most powerful temptation to cheat is money. Those who win, or who get into the best schools, or get the best jobs, often stand to financially gain from their cheating. There is also fame, ego and competitive spirit-which might be particularly tempting if one believes others are cheating.

We are obviously aware of the cheaters who grab the headlines, but what other cheaters?

We learned about high school students who paid to have others take their SATs--which would allow them to get into the best schools or maybe even receive a scholarship? And about the students who plagiarize their papers or work together on on-line exams to pass their classes or improve their grades?

The competition for employment is steep and one employment recruitment firm estimates that up to 40 percent of all résumés include a lie or embellishment.

And what about those who cheat on their income taxes, who knowingly and purposely evade paying the amount of taxes owed? Nobody knows exactly how many people cheat--maybe 30-40 percent--but the amount is estimated to cost over $250 billion per year.

Of course, the major league of immorality sometimes includes government, corporation and political cheaters.

Corporations are often fined millions for breaking the rules to gain a competitive and financial advantage. Cheating might entail anything from failing to adequately test a drug to bribing legislatures to get favorable laws passed.

On a global economic scale, the stakes are high and "economic hit man" John Perkins, wrote, "This empire, unlike any other in the history of the world, has been built primarily through economic manipulation, through cheating, through fraud, through seducing people into our way of life, through the economic hit men."

Capitalism, for many, is winning at all cost.

The consequences for large scale cheating in business or politics include the world's most heinous crimes--from destroying the environment, bankrupting nations, exploiting workers and, of course, death.

In this sense, it seems that the extent we are appalled with Lance Armstrong is a bit excessive. After all, he is probably right that if he did not cheat-when many others in his sport were cheating-he would not even be Lance Armstrong. He was just the best cheater, wasn't he?

If some weekend softball players are willing to use an illegal bat to hit a large ball tossed underhand simply for bragging rights, or maybe to decide who buys the first round of drinks, imagine the temptation to create a competitive advantage in a sport of cheaters, in which the winner stands to earn millions.

Certainly, I am not defending Armstrong. He lied for a long time and hurt a lot of people--he deserves to suffer the consequences of his intentional and calculating actions.

But let us not lose perspective.

We embrace a society that not only rewards success, but is obsessed with it. The intense pressure to win, to be successful, provides an incentive to cheat--especially when competitors cheat. Competition, in most areas of American society, is fierce and often the margin between winning and losing is razor thin--yet, the financial difference is often measured in millions. The best are rewarded with fame and excesses, even worshipped; others may struggle to survive.

Sophocles said, "I would prefer even to fail with honor than win by cheating." Today, that perspective might require a paradigm shift.

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