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Crossing the Line in Sport: Is Cheating Always Wrong?

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About The Author

Ben Cisneros (Regular Writer)

Ben is a third-year law student at Selwyn College, Cambridge, currently spending this year studying law at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid as part of the Erasmus scheme. He has a keen interest in Sports law, and is a future trainee of boutique firm, Morgan Sports Law. Outside of academia, Ben is a keen singer and actor with a unflinching love of Wasps and England rugby.

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The more people rationalize cheating, the more it becomes a culture of dishonesty. 

Stephen Covey

If the line between “fair play” and “gamesmanship” in sport can be a difficult one to determine, recent events have shown that the line between “gamesmanship” and “cheating” is itself a minefield. Two recent cases have thrust the ethics of sporting conduct into the spotlight, with Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky being publicly accused of “crossing the ethical line” and Australian cricketers given hefty bans for ball tampering.

Of course, there is a significant difference between the two cases: while the Australian cricketers broke a law of their game, Wiggins did not. Yet, in both cases, those involved have been publicly shamed; they face losing both sponsorship and their reputations. Furthermore, in both cases, a “line” was allegedly crossed such that the athletes involved were said to have gone “too far”.

With these events and their fallout in mind, this article examines whether – notwithstanding the different rules governing different sports – “gamesmanship” and “cheating” really are the points of reference for determining what is acceptable sporting conduct, or whether “the line not to be crossed” lies elsewhere.

Defining the Terms: Gamesmanship and Cheating

The line between “gamesmanship” and “cheating” is blurred in a way that leaves the two concepts difficult to define. However, Angela Lumpkin et al. have offered a tentative definition of “gamesmanship” as:

[P]ushing the rules to the limit without getting caught, using whatever dubious methods possible to achieve the desired end.

This conveys the idea of just about staying on the right side of the law. Conduct such as walking slowly to restarts, repeatedly ‘tying’ shoe-laces, or ‘losing’ a contact lens to slow the game down are all examples of conduct which, though not in breach of any rules per se, can prove advantageous.

“Cheating”, meanwhile, has been the subject of varying definitions and is the matter of some debate. Indeed, as Connor Griffith has examined for Keep Calm Talk Law, the Supreme Court in Ivey v Genting Casinos [2017] finally put to rest a long-standing debate as to the definition of cheating in criminal law by removing dishonesty as a necessary ingredient.

In fact, the reasoning advanced by Lord Hughes – who penned the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision – can be taken to undermine the definitions of cheating advanced by commentators in this area. For example, Peter McIntosh’s suggestion that cheating ‘need be no more than breaking the rules with the intention of not being found out’ implies an element of dishonesty or trying not be “found out”.

However, as Lord Hughes pointed out, nothing is added to the concept of “cheating” by adding this element: a runner who deliberately trips up an opponent might be considered to have cheated but would not necessarily be dishonest. After all, they may have made no attempt to hide their intentions. It may be for this potential flaw in his definition that Peter McIntosh accepts that what he has articulated could be considered:

[T]oo simple. It is not always the written or even the unwritten rules which is broken; tacit assumptions which one contestant knows that the other contestant acts upon may be rejected in order to gain an advantage.

Under this definition, there are aspects of “gamesmanship” which would be considered “cheating”. For example, it is a tacit assumption in match-play golf that short putts will be conceded. Not doing so – as occurred during the 2015 Solheim Cup is not against the rules, but could thus be considered “cheating”.

That being said, if it is tacitly assumed by all contestants that such acts of “gamesmanship” will occur, then this level of “cheating” may be acceptable. And, given the regular occurrence of certain such acts within particular sports, an argument therefore arises that “cheating” should be accepted as being an inherent part of sport. Crucially though, this would controversially ignore the reason – articulated by Johan Huizinga – as to why cheating in sport is usually rejected:

To our way of thinking, cheating as a means of winning a game robs the action of its play-character and spoils it altogether, because for us the essence of play is that the rules be kept – that it be fair play.

Gates! Gates Everywhere!

A raft of examples from across sporting history help to shed light on whether “gamesmanship” and “cheating” provide a definitive line that should not be crossed in sport, or whether there are other influences and factors that mean, at times, that line is actually found elsewhere.

Bloodgate: Rugby Union, 2009

This scandal involved English Premiership club Harlequins using blood capsules to fake injuries and allow previously substituted players to return to the field. Most infamously, with five minutes to go in their Heineken Cup quarter-final against Leinster, winger Tom Williams was removed from the field as a ‘blood injury’ and replaced by the previously removed Nick Evans (fly-half and winning drop-goal expert). Harlequins were purportedly relying on then-Law 3.12(a)of the International Rugby Board’s Laws of the Game:

If a player is substituted, that player must not return and play in that match, even to replace an injured player.

Exception 1: a substituted player may replace a player with an open or bleeding wound.

Suspicions were immediately raised, leading to a hasty attempt at a cover-up and a series of firm denials. But damning TV images showed Williams pulling something from his sock before revealing a sudden explosion of blood on his mouth. This was sufficient evidence for the ERC (the governing body of the Heineken Cup) to ultimately give Williams a four-month ban, Harlequins a fine, and then-head coach Dean Richards a 3-year ban, for misconduct.

This was a clear case of “cheating” under any definition. Richards, Williams and others colluded to break the laws of the game, bringing its integrity into disrepute. It confirms that feigning injury to such a degree crosses the line between “gamesmanship” and “cheating” and, in any event, is “too far”.

Ballgate: Cricket, 2018

The recent Australian ball tampering scandal involving cricketers Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft provides a clear example of where, despite “the line” clearly being crossed, its position is given varying interpretations. Under Section 41.3.2 of the Laws of Cricket:

It is an offence for any player to take any action which changes the condition of the ball. Except in carrying out his/her normal duties, a batsman is not allowed to wilfully damage the ball.

Bancroft’s use of sandpaper to change the condition of the ball – to generate ‘reverse swing’ – was a straightforward breach of the laws of cricket. As such, Bancroft was sanctioned by the International Cricket Council (ICC). Meanwhile Smith, Australia’s captain, was charged for failing to uphold his duty under Section 41.1 of the Laws of Cricket to ensure that play is conducted within ‘The Spirit of Cricket’.

However, Cricket Australia – the national governing body – went further. Under its own Code of Conduct, Smith and Warner (Australia’s vice-captain and the ring-leader in the ball tampering) received one-year bans, while Bancroft got 9 months.

There is a notable inconsistency between the punishments handed down to Warner by Cricket Australia and the ICC. Despite teaching Bancroft, a junior teammate, how best to use and conceal the sandpaper, Warner received no sanction from the ICC. This might suggest that the facilitating of ball-tampering by non-captains is acceptable under the official laws of cricket, though Cricket Australia seems to disagree. This raises questions about where exactly “the line” falls in cricket.

A further complication is provided by the acceptance that the ball can be altered naturally. Under Section of the Laws of Cricket, fielders are permitted to ‘polish the ball on their clothing’ so long as they do not use an ‘artificial substance’. It might therefore be concluded that polishing a ball with saliva represents “gamesmanship” but using sandpaper certainly counts as “cheating”. However, while this distinction draws a “line”, it is important to note that in this case, the “line” seems to be drawn by the relevant laws, which do not necessarily take the “cheating” and “gamesmanship” dichotomy as their basis.

Grunting: Tennis

The practice of “grunting” is common-place in modern tennis: it is used to give the ball-player extra power, and to distract their opponent. In the 2009 French Open, complaints were made about the shrieking” of Michelle Larcher de Brito – she was subsequently accused of cheating by some former players – though no action was taken.

Despite no provisions concerning ”grunting” existing in the International Tennis Federation’s Rules of Tennis, it is specifically designated as a “hindrance” under the US Tennis Association Code. This only adds to the confusion as to whether “grunting” is acceptable; the “gamesmanship” and “cheating” distinction is uncertain. What is clearer, though, is that where laws exist help to mark out “the line”, this again leaves the dichotomy between “gamesmanship” and “cheating” seeming somewhat redundant.

The Bodyline Ashes Series: Cricket, 1932-33

The 1932-33 Ashes ‘Bodyline’ series earned its name from the tactic of bowling directly at the batsman’s body that was employed by the English bowlers. It was seen as overly aggressive and unfair, and caused controversy that spilled over into the diplomatic arena. But, because the tactic was not against the rules of cricket, England won the series.

Subsequently, however, the ICC changed the laws of the game to prohibit this type of tactic from being used again. This demonstrates that “the line” is ultimately where the governing body decides. If something is not prohibited by the rules, it is generally fair game – whether it falls under an abstract definition of “cheating” or not.

Jiffy-Baggate: Cycling, 2018

In March, the Parliamentary Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport published a scathing report on Sir Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky for “crossing an ethical line”. Though this also did not rely on the “gamesmanship” and “cheating” dichotomy, it was concerning that the Select Committee elected to draw a “line” in a very different place to that crossed by the Australian cricketers and by Harlequins rugby club.

The report followed an investigation into the contents of a Jiffy bag which was delivered to Team Sky for Wiggins's use. Team Sky testified that the bag contained the legal decongestant Fluimucil, but an anonymous tip-off alleged it was the corticosteroid triamcinolone which, it is alleged, allows riders to lose weight while maintaining power, and is banned in-competition. The investigation was hindered by administrative errors, such that it was impossible to definitively conclude what the substance was.

Nevertheless, the Select Committee’s report criticised Team Sky for allegedly using drugs “to enhance the performance of riders and not just to treat medical need” and for allowing Wiggins to use triamcinolone to treat his asthma, with a Therapeutic Use Exemption. The report also stated that Sir Dave Brailsford – Head of Team Sky – must take responsibility for:

[T]he damaging scepticism about the legitimacy of his team’s performance and accomplishments.

This high standard of moral accountability which the Select Committee seems to be applying to Team Sky seems to draw a different “line” to that of other sports. It is an invisible line, and one which seems to have been breached based on flimsy evidence. The drug’s other ‘performance-enhancing’ effects have, in any event, been doubted by experts and there is still no evidence suggesting Wiggins or Team Sky committed a violation under the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Code.

Even if what they did was to gain an advantage, it was still not - as the DCMS acknowledged – in breach of any rules. Thus, while Peter McIntosh would consider such conduct “cheating,” most professional athletes would not.

Indeed, in a results-driven world with sporting and financial pressure, professional sports teams will always seek to use the rules to their advantage. So while encouraging the values of sportsmanship and “fair play” is undeniably necessary, it must also be accepted that in such a competitive industry the only way to do this is by creating rules and enforcing them. Professional athletes cannot be expected to simply abide by a ‘moral code’ if to do so would impede their chances of winning – particularly when everybody else is doing the same.

Shifting Lines: The Influence of Sportsmanship

Investigating the significance of the “gamesmanship” and “cheating” dichotomy in sport are somewhat complicated by the existence of general provisions influenced by the concept of “sportsmanship”. The International Tennis Federation’s Code of Conduct regulates “unsportsmanlike conduct”, World Rugby have a provision about conduct “against the spirit of good sportsmanship”, the ICC have provisions on “The Spirit of Cricket” and FIFA make “unsporting behaviour” an actionable offence.

These provisions aim to promote the values of “sportsmanship” and “fair play”. However, they suffer from the problem of being rather vague and, consequently, sporadically enforced. For example, sledging is not always punished despite being against “The Spirit of Cricket”, while chasing after the referee to complain – as often occurs in football – is “unsporting behaviour” that is sparingly sanctioned. Thus, while general provisions add value in that they allow governing bodies to sanction acts which cause outcry, they do not make it easy for players to determine where “the line” lies.

The Need for “Legal Certainty”

Many sports claim to be governed by “laws”: if this is so, there is a strong argument that they breach the fundamental Rule of Law principle of legal certainty and consistency. It is the responsibility of governing institutions to demarcate what is and is not acceptable in the sporting arena – something evidently lacking in several sports – through consistent application of sanctions for unsporting conduct, and by the creation of specific and identifiable offences.

The inconsistent nature of the enforcement of rules is demonstrated by Cliff Taylor’s argument that it is actually sponsors who write the playbook for standards of behaviour, illustrated recently by financial group Magellan withdrawing its naming sponsorship from Australian cricket. If this enticing contention is true, it is regrettable: in the sporting context, only where rules are broken should athletes be considered to have gone “too far” or crossed “the line”.

Rules exist to mark the boundaries, so sportspeople cannot be blamed for playing between them. Equally, to punish them – through official sanction or any reputation-ruining equivalent – for stepping outside the boundaries when they are unclear is unfair.


It is clear that “the line” not to be crossed in sport is not necessarily the one between mere “gamesmanship” and “cheating”. If commonly expressed definitions of “cheating” – such as that advanced by Peter MacIntosh – are accepted, then it must also be accepted that elements of cheating are allowed in sport. In fact, it must also be accepted that the “gamesmanship” and “cheating” dichotomy is irrelevant to determining where “the line” falls. The only “line” that matters is the one drawn by the law-makers, and athletes will be going “too far” only if they breach explicit provisions.

In a utopian sporting world, there would be no “gamesmanship” or “cheating”. Everyone would abide by the written laws and by the unwritten rules of fair play. Everyone would uphold the values of good sportsmanship by respecting their opponents and the referee, thereby setting an example for younger generations as to the importance of fair and equal sport.

But this is not realistic and does not account for human nature. There is always an advantage to be gained – legally or illegally – and there are always those who wish to exploit it. In an increasingly competitive and pressurised sporting world, the incentive to do so is ever greater, albeit that the consequences, too, are more severe. The reality is that pure sportsmanship is antithetical to professionalism. As such, it is more important than ever to establish boundaries; to make “the line” clearer for those who wish to toe it, and to set out what the consequences will be if they go too far.

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Tagged: Sport Law

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