It seems cheating is pairing with sports more frequently these days, like the vanilla ice-cream and apple pie combo: inseparable. Of course, there are some key differences. You can choose to eat apple pie solo, but why would you? A taste of creamy, melting vanilla ice-cream enhances the flavor and enjoyment of every bite of pie, a nice contrast to the crisp crust and the spicy fruit. But none of us gets to choose a side of cheating to accompany our favorite team.

Can we have sports without cheating? We’ve dealt with the issue of performance-enhancing drugs in countless sports for generations now: baseball, cycling, track and field, weight-lifting, football, even rowing, to the point that steroid use is practically an assumed, albeit illegal, practice. News of yet another elite athlete having strayed into the realm of artificial abetment causes barely a ripple of surprise.

It’s not just the traditionally “professional” sports either. World Championship and Olympic competitors have splashed dollops of this bitter side dish on our plates, dating way back. The winner of the Olympic marathon at the 1904 Games, Thomas Hicks, took a shot of strychnine to improve his performance; gold medalist Ben Johnson failed a drug test in the 1988 Olympics; Lance Armstrong crashed from the heights of supremacy to the depths of disillusioning deceit in 2012 when he finally admitted to illicit, repeated drug use.

As bad as athlete cheating is, when the entire system conspires to tip the playing field, that’s even worse.

The 2002 “Skategate” incident, when judges conspired to rig results at the Salt Lake City Olympics to guarantee the Russians the gold medal in ice dancing is a prime example, forcing officials to award an unprecedented two gold medals.

During the 1970’s and 1980’s, the East German sports system, headed by Manfred Ewald, systematically used performance-enhancing drugs to dope thousands of athletes without their knowledge, feeding them pills that masqueraded as vitamins. East German athletes won countless Olympic and World Championship medals they didn’t exactly earn, at the expense of their competitors.

And now, we have a cheating scandal perpetuated by a group of so-called educators at a prestigious American university, UNC, that cut across several sports and undermined the futures of approximately 1500 athletes over twenty years. Administrators didn’t just inflate grades, but offered non-existent classes to help students maintain their GPAs, continue to keep playing sports, and obtain college degrees.

Besides the fact that thousands of nameless athletes in other college sports programs who played by the rules lost competitions, perhaps championships, to athletes who conspired to game the system, consider the damage done to the athletes who participated in this scam. University administrators delivered countless teachable moments every time an athlete signed up for a fake class, submitted sub-par work, received an unearned grade and was permitted to compete in sports without having met the minimum academic requirements:

You’re not sufficiently intelligent to earn your own college degree;

  • Working hard and struggling to accomplish something difficult is unimportant;
  • It’s okay to game the system for your personal benefit, at others’ expense;
  • You deserve success more than others do;
  • Cheating is okay, as long as you can get away with it;
  • Nothing matters more than winning in sports.

The rest of us feel the shuddering of our cultural moorings, which weaken and loosen every time naked self-interest is elevated above the good of the whole. Has a new golden rule emerged: do unto others to win at all costs (and the dollars will then flow)?

As high falutin’ as it may sound, a founding principle of our nation is at stake here: the idea of equality.

What kind of a system lacks sufficient checks and balances so that something this extensive could continue unabated for twenty years? I’d say it’s one that has shown it cannot handle the weighty responsibility of preparing young people to play fair and live with integrity in every walk of life.

Would it be too harsh to propose that UNC be excommunicated from the NCAA, stripped of all its sports programs; that its non-cheating athletes be permitted to transfer and play elsewhere without losing any eligibility; and that the cheating ones remain behind, required to finish their college degrees as mere students? Perhaps the NCAA could grasp this teachable moment by imposing tough consequences, not just on the individuals who perpetuated such rampant, systemic cheating, but the institution that allowed it, knowingly or not. Maybe then we could savor the taste of sports without having to down the nasty chaser that cheating forces on all of us.