Freakonomics' Stephen Dubner on Why We Love Cheating in Sports

Journalist and Author
Deflategate. A-Rod. Drama erupts anytime the American public suspects our star athletes of cheating. But Stephen Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics and of the new book When to Rob a Bank believes there's a dirty little secret beneath all the fuss: We actually love it.
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TRANSCRIPT

Stephen Dubner: I love sports and I love playing sports. I like games, playing games. And whenever, you know, you hear about or think about cheating, I think most of us say oh, you know, the knee-jerk response is: "That’s terrible." Like people shouldn’t cheat, right. They shouldn’t break the rules. But I got to thinking about it and sometimes when I read the sports section of a newspaper, particularly, it seems like about three-quarters of the articles are about some version of cheating, right. Either contractually or performance-enhancing or trying to gain some advantage outside the rules. And I got to thinking, you know, maybe we actually like it that way.

Cheating is just like the heightened version of wanting to win really, really badly. So in a way, you kind of admire the people who cheat to win. Now cheating to lose is different. And we punish no one more than the people who like throw games. Cheating to lose, we really don’t like. But cheating to win I think we kind of get it. We say that, you know, even if it’s like Alex Rodriguez who’s, you know, I live in New York. He went from being one of the — he’s still one of the most famous athletes in the last 50 years, but went from being revered for his unbelievable talent to being one of the most despised athletes because he just cheated over and over again and kept lying about it and kept getting caught in a very kind of ham-handed way. But even so you kind of have to respect someone who wants so badly to win and to do better that they’re willing to give themselves human growth hormones or whatever. So in that way, I kind of think that cheating is like something that we root for a little bit. We get it. We identify with it.

Deflategate. I mean it’s kind of idiotic in one way. On the other hand look how totally obsessed we are with the fact that the New England Patriots may have taken, I don’t know, a half-pound or a pound square inch of air pressure out of the footballs. We love it. And so like as a moralist, you say, "Cheating is bad. We should decry all cheating. Cheating in sports is terrible." But as a person, if you look at how much we love it and as an economist, you know, you look at not what people say they love, but what they actually do. Like not what, you know, if you ask people how are you going to — I’ll give you $100. How are you going to spend it? "Oh, I’m going to give $50 away and then I’ll use the other $30 to buy a present for my friend. Then maybe the other bit I’ll buy something for myself." But then if you watch how the people – then if you give people $100 and see how they actually spend it, they don’t give half away, right. So we might say we hate cheating, but I think in our hearts we kind of love it because it gives us something else to talk about when the games are over.