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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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Cheating vs. Values and Ethics: High School Sports

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: May 16th 2008

 A Moral Dilemma:

You are walking down the street and notice that a woman ahead of you has unknowingly dropped an envelope. You bend down and pick it up, open it, and notice that it contains ten one hundred dollar bills. The idea of finding $1,000 dollars is very exciting. What would you do?

This is a fairly typical example of a moral dilemma used by school teachers in an effort to engage students in values clarification exercises. Here are some of the questions that students are asked to consider: Do you keep the thousand dollars because the woman is at fault for being careless and you live by the rule "finder keepers?" Do you pick up the envelope, call to the woman and return the money to her because it's the right thing to do? If you return the money is it out of fear of being caught and punished or is it because you hope for a reward? Do you keep the money because your family is very poor and one thousand dollars can help them buy food and clothes? If you learn that the money is for a charitable cause because the envelope has the name of the charity marked on it what do you do? Do you keep it anyway because your family is poor or do you return it because it can help many more people than your family?

Research on the brain and nervous system tells us that our ethical and moral decisions are often guided by parts of the prefrontal cortex that are connected to our emotions. Recent findings show that people tend to make ethical decisions based on what will help the largest number of people. These studies have used fMRI technology that actually identifies the areas of the brain that are being activated while people are thinking about these issues.

A Real Situation:

Currently, there is a case in a Colorado High School in which a member of a Lacrosse team was caught cheating on video tape. This was not a case of cheating on a math or history exam in a classroom but of hiding the ball in his hand and sneakily tossing it into the goal. Even his opponent could not detect what was happening even though he was right there. It was only one judge and a review of the video tape that revealed the cheating.

The State High School Athletic League decided to suspend the team for the remainder of the season and, thereby, strip the team of the opportunity to compete in the championship series.

The parents of the students on the offending team publicly came out against the decision made by the State Athletic League. The rational of the parents is that athletes always "bend" or "break" the rules. What seems to have evaded their thinking was that this was not a case of bending the rules but of down right and deliberate cheating.

What type of thinking and decision making should guide both the parents and their High School Children? Should they be guided by the principle that winning is most important regardless of the cost? Another way of asking this question is "Do the ends justify the means?" Of course, if the end result is what is most important, and if you believe that winning is most important, then is it perfectly O.K to cheat?

Examples from Literature and History

1. A brilliant novel written by William Styron was published in 1979 and made into an equally brilliant and emotionally searing movie in 1982. It is titled Sophie's Choice and involves a moral dilemma faced by a non Jewish mother during the Holocaust. While the plot of the story is very complex and well worth reading and viewing, the moral dilemma that a Nazi officer forces Sophie to make is to decide which of her two children, her older daughter or younger son, will go to the gas chamber. She is forced to make an immediate decision or both children will die. She decides to allow the daughter to go to her death. The child is pulled away screaming for her mother. Ultimately, both children die as the son succumbs to a disease in the work camp.

2. If we go back to Ancient times we come across perhaps the greatest philosopher of all times and the one whose philosophy forms the basis of Western Civilization, Socrates. Among the many ethical concepts he taught one of the most important was that "might does not make right." What he meant by this was that the use of force to subjugate other people or nations does not make the dominating force right. Being mighty does not mean that anyone is entitled to be corrupt and dishonest. More than anything, Socrates taught the value of Truth and Virtue. Because of his belief in the pursuit of truth and virtue, he chose death rather than escape from prison with his life.

3. One of the great sports writers of all time, Grantland Rice, wrote a book of his own poems that were published in 1917. The book is called, Songs of the Stalwart. From one of the poems comes a quotation that has always stood as the foundation of American competition, whether in sports or any other field:

 "For when the one Great Scorer comes
  To write against your name,
  He marks - not that you won or lost-
  But how you played the game."

What Can We Do?

As a father, mental health professional and writer on psychological issues, I often think about what it is we are teaching our children in today's world? Are our children being prepared to make decisions based on ethical thinking and values, or based on selfishness and what they can selfishly gain for themselves?

I can report that, based on my experiences in High Schools, many adolescents said they would choose to keep the money in the hypothetical situation involving the money in the dropped envelope.

In my opinion, this issue of ethical decision making and values clarification is not a religious issue. The reason I state this is that history is filled with too many examples of people making decisions to attack and kill others based on what they believe is religiously best for mankind. The most recent example was the radical Islamic decision to attack the World Trade Center based on what they believed was what Allah would want. As a result of that way of thinking, history is filled with bloody examples of people doing what they believe is best for mankind based on religious thinking.

What I am attempting to get at here is how do we teach our children higher ethical thinking that is based on more complex and abstract ways of thinking?

There is one thing I know for certain and that is our children will not learn ethical thinking and living if we defend their behavior when they are found to have cheated on a test, in a sports competition or in any other area of life.

Perhaps the first way we need to approach teaching ethics to our children is by how we lead our lives as parents, workers and members of the community. I will fail to teach that all human beings and every human life is valuable if I sit at the dinner table making hateful jokes and remarks about other racial and ethnic groups. I will fail to tach ethical thinking to my children if I decide to vote against Barack Obama because he is partially of African American descent. What I should teach is that I will vote for or against him because I agree or disagree with his politics.

Second, it is time for the schools to focus not only on improving reading and math scores, and that is important, but by devoting part of the curriculum and part of each week to the teaching of values and ethics. I do not believe that learning about Socrates and why he chose to die can possibly harm our children. In fact, a discussion of his thinking could provide a good foundation for ethical thinking.

In addition, I sincerely doubt that many teachers and coaches are aware of Grantland Price and the emphasis he put on how the game is played as something higher than winning or losing. It seems to me that every coach of every school team should imbue athletes with that poem and it's meaning.

Childhood and adolescence are stages in life when youngsters are very idealistic. I am convinced that if we take advantage of youthful idealism by teaching how to think and act ethically we will produce people who have a greater respect for life and democracy than is presently true.

What are your opinions?

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Coaches abusing the system and children - Raquel LaCour - Sep 21st 2008

Cheating and speaking out causes school system to retaliate on the victim and protect the abusers inorder to cover things up to protect their good name. Fulton county states "where children come first" but honestly, it is the school and the staff that comes first, because when you report violations and discrimination, they intimidate you, harrass you, and retaliate on your child by banning them from activities. They spend too much time teaching the parent a lesson for speaking out. Alpharetta High School has retalaiated against many kids, forcing them to transfer out and get away from the abuse of power, but places like the OCR and Georgia Professional standards commission are designed to help. Unfortuneately GHSA does not uphold rules and are notorious for allowing coaches to violate rules based on previous reputation, even if the coaches honor is bassed on lies, cheating , bad morals and displeasing ethical standards. Something must be done to stop the abuse in the schools and relate the message for parents to stop being bullied. I would like to know any abuse in the fulton county school system and why nothing is done to prevent the administration fabricating lies on students as being a disruption to school for having freedom of speech to report the abuse, In essence, they just want children to stay quiet and take the abuse, and allow the ones they hire as coaches to do whatever they want to them without any reprecussions. and if they speak up, they are being negative and then consequently removed from the team and then banned from all other activities, all to protect the coach, now what do you all think of that type of abuse of power??????????

GHSA honors a cheating cheer coach - Raquel LaCour - Aug 1st 2008

GHSA allows coaches to get away with cheating, just recently they named a cheer'coach for cheating, and instead of suspending the tream, and taking back her coach of the year honor, they covered it up, and would rather try to get the parent that made the complaint llok foolish, when they should of investigated the allegations before someone had to make a book to prove it...check it out

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