An aversion to cheating

When the Melbourne Storm salary cap story broke, I thought it would only be a matter of time until one of the accused parties invoked the drug cheat’s defence, that is everyone else does it too! It’s a common defence in cycling, athletics and many human endeavours where money, fame and ego rule.

Now just because a cyclist is high on EPO doesn’t make him a liar. Similarly Brian Waldron, the alleged architect of the Melbourne Storm’s salary cap rorting, may be correct that paying players over the cap is common practise. Based on some of the accusations you would be forgiven for thinking Brian Waldron actually invented cheating in sport.

The ethical basis for the everyone-else-does-it-too defence is referred to as ethical relativism. According to this line of reasoning there are no ethical rules which apply everywhere all of the time. That is, what is right depends on the context of the local culture in which an action takes place.

The drug cheat’s defence is based on the idea the prevailing culture sanctions the use of medical intervention to improve performance and, as long as everyone is cheating, the playing field is level. This defence is further supported by the public and media obsession with winning, breaking records and pushing the limits of human endurance.

However one problem with this defence is that ethical relativism is rejected by most ethicists. If we always default to the local culture, any action can be justified. There will be no universal ethical rules that can be applied across nations. There will be no place for an international ethic.

We will be told that: tribal warfare in Rwanda is normal not genocide; the Taliban really has the best interests of women in mind; the USA’s high consumption lifestyle is non-negotiable because it’s their way of life; and it’s ok Australia is the world’s largest per capita emitter of carbon, as burning coal and clearing forests is what we do!

None of these positions are tenable. Past indiscretions don’t justify their repetition. We have the opportunity to change individually and collectively and no longer can we deny the impact of our actions on the global community. One irrevocable ethical principle is responsibility for the reasonably foreseeable impacts of our actions. Other ethical principles reflect the sanctity of human life, gender equality and freedom. These principles when expressed as ethical rules such as in the UN Declaration of Human Rights are universally applicable.

For ethical reasons we also have a preference for truth and honesty and an aversion to cheating. Telling the higher authority, which is the NRL in the case of the Melbourne Storm, that the club is paying players within the salary cap, is dishonest. Using this practise to gain advantage is cheating, and it is still cheating regardless of how many other competitors are doing it.

If clean competitors are concerned others are gaining an unfair advantage they can work with the authorities to uncover cheats and change the prevailing culture to competing fairly within the rules.

There must be many players and managers within the Melbourne Storm who were aware of the salary cap cheating, and many others in rugby league aware of similar unethical behaviour elsewhere. The culture of deceit must be strong for such actions to be tolerated over many years. But as with all corrupt cultures, judgement day eventually arrives, and when it does the character and reputation of those involved are destroyed for ever.


Geoff Lamberton is a senior lecturer in ethics and sustainability at Southern Cross University.

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