Cheating is the ugliest word in sport – and so it should be. But with so many indiscretions now being defended on the grounds of professionalism and winning at all costs, are we losing the will to call it out, even when the evidence is clear for all to see?
In my book, there are two criteria to identify cheating. First, a player must intentionally break the rules to gain an advantage with the potential to change the outcome of the contest. Second, the offence must be sufficiently egregious to tarnish the reputation of the code. By these measures, we have seen at least three world-class sportsmen cheat on the international stage over recent months – with only one of them getting nabbed.
Let’s start with Phil Mickelson at the US Open. Frustrated by baked greens, he reacted to a bad putt the same way a child might – he raced after the ball and hit it back towards the cup before it rolled off the green. After the round, Mickelson doubled-down by saying he deliberately broke Rule 14.5 to stop “going back and forth”. Four days later he apologised, admitting anger and frustration had got the better of him, but the damage was done. That Mickelson was at the tail of the field is irrelevant. Ricky Fowler improved 19 strokes in the more forgiving conditions the following day. Did his actions besmirch golf? For traditionalists, no doubt. They would point to a centuries-old ethos of player honesty and self-policing. The USGA should have intervened but didn’t.
Fast forward to Neymar and his theatrical backflip in the group stage of the World Cup. Did he break the rules intentionally? The fact his fall and roll inspired a tsunami of memes should be proof enough of his culpability in terms of intent to deceive, even if the referee needed to consult the video replay for affirmation. Could it have changed the outcome? Yes, a penalty can do that. Did his simulated collapse bring the game into disrepute? Absolutely. Diving is the scourge of football and only when the perpetrators, confirmed by VAR, are slapped with a red card, will it be eradicated. FIFA should have intervened but didn’t.
Compare the inadequate response to Mickelson and Neymar to that endured by Australia cricket captain Steve Smith in the wake of the ball-tampering fiasco. Smith and deputy David Warner were banned from first class cricket for 12 months, including lucrative contracts in the Indian Premier League. Both admitted to intentionally breaking the rules and bringing the game into disrepute during tearful press conferences, their shame laid bare. Although it could be argued the penalties were harsh compared to others caught for similar offences, the adjudication set a higher standard. Cricket in Australia, and hopefully elsewhere, should emerge stronger for it.
Mickelson and Neymar are among the biggest draws in their sports but that doesn’t mean they are above the law. Sports authorities need to find the courage to act on cheating, no matter how credentialled the offenders.