What’s Cheating?

Tomorrow I’ll have my NFL week one round-up, but today I wanted to go back to a post by Henry Abbott at True Hoop about some new shoes that may or may not improve your jumping ability.  If you’re interested, I really recommend clicking over to the Ballard story to hear what happened when he tested them out.  I tend to find these kind of stories uninteresting because I don’t really know what counts as cheating, which begs the question of why I’m writing about it.  I find people’s opinions of cheating to be interesting.  These shoes, for example, claim to add at least a few inches to your vertical.  The title of Henry’s post, if not quite the content of the post itself, says that if they actually work the NBA has to ban them.  Players who wear the shoes should get more rebounds, blocks, have their shot blocked less, and get easier shots in general.  That’s only true, of course, if their opponents aren’t wearing them.  In the 2008 Olympics, swimmers were allowed to break from their sponsors to wear the new extra-buoyant suits, and Olympic and World records fell at a ridiculous pace.  Since then the suits have apparently been banned, but I haven’t found anything that says if those records will be revoked or not.  Importantly, though, since many swimmers got to wear the same suit, no one had an advantage; everyone just got faster.  There were races where, for example, the top five swimmers all broke the old record.  The fifth guy can’t claim he was cheated; he had the same benefits and just wasn’t as fast.

I think the real thing that people worry about is if the effect is ‘natural’ or not.  These shoes, the fancy swimsuits, and steroids are all ‘cheating’ because they enable people to do things they wouldn’t normally.  Things we take for granted, like glasses or contact lenses, aren’t cheating because they only return people to normalcy.  The shoes, on the other hand, claim to let people jump higher than they ever would otherwise.  But I think there are also a good number of examples of things that are allowed, and seem normal, but aren’t ‘natural’.  In the NBA, for example, more and more players are wearing compression sleeves and padded shirts and shorts under their jerseys.  Compression sleeves started when players were coming off injury (wikipedia attributes the trend to Allen Iverson), but people keep wearing them after they’ve recovered, and I think some players just wear them for the look.  The sleeves do have a function, though; they help support and warm muscles and joints, and there’s at least some chance they help players one way or another.  Padded shirts and shorts also help players by letting them take more falls to the floor or bumps into other players without taking as much punishment.  Yet no one complains about these or considers them cheating.

Safety equipment in general is performance-enhancing.  Anything that lets a person play when they wouldn’t be able to otherwise, or would perform worse due to fatigue or slight injury, is enhancing their natural ability.  Yet it isn’t considered cheating, unless you’re Barry Bonds and your elbow guard seems unusually large.  It feels like using something to keep players safe and healthy is good and right to allow, but most of the articles I’ve read about steroids emphasizes their use for resisting and recovering from injury; there are also the uppers baseball players use for extra (‘normal’ levels?) of energy or the blood doping that endurance athletes use to increase oxygen efficiency.  None of these things would necessarily allow an athlete to do more than he was capable of, just allow him to do it longer than he normally would.  Which is exactly what safety equipment does.  So when are you cheating?

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