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Why do some in sports feel the need to cheat?

Astros manager AJ Hinch was fired earlier this week after participating in a sign-stealing scheme in 2017.David Zalubowski/AP/Associated Press

Let’s face it, cheaters win. Armed with ill-gotten information gains, they take unfair advantage of their opponents, leaving those of us who are none the wiser to naturally assume they are simply superior to those they beat.

In baseball terms — and thanks to a sign-stealing controversy roiling America’s pastime, baseball is our most current language of rule-breaking foul play — cheaters often hit it out of the park. They win Olympic gold medals aided by the latest chemical enhancements. They run the perfect defense because they already know the formation they are facing. They land the hottest prospects because they bend the recruiting rules. They move golf balls to get a better lie. They look for any edge, from altering the pounds per square inch of pressure in a football to scuffing the surface or slathering spit on a baseball.


They do just about anything they can get away with.

And then they get caught.

As the Red Sox await what is sure to be further punishment for the sins of Alex Cora, as they join two other major league teams searching for a new manager to replace the ones implicated by the sophisticated sign-stealing scheme in Houston, we know this scandal has not yet widened to its outermost edge. But wherever the twists and turns take us, through the accusations of former pitcher Jack McDowell, who claims Tony La Russa long ago used cameras to steal signs, to the unsubstantiated Twitter claims that Astros star player Jose Altuve wore a buzzer under his jersey that alerted him to pitch selection, we are left with the same question.


Why would these players and coaches cheat? Why, having already reached the pinnacle of their respective sports, would they feel the need to circumvent the rules? Why, knowing full well they might be caught, would they risk their livelihoods in such nefarious fashion?


“Winning. It all comes down to winning,” Dr. Eric Bean wrote in an e-mail interview with the Globe. Bean is a certified mental performance consultant and executive board member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. “There is a long, rich, and complicated history of cheating in sports and it mostly stems from the emphasis sport and culture put on winning. Athletes who are largely ego-oriented [that is, focused on being better than everyone else] are more likely to have lower sportpersonship, cheat, and endorse cheating as compared to athletes who are more task-oriented [focused on self-development and mastery].”

Sometimes, as fans, we want our teams to win so badly that we are willing to accept those questionable methods, no matter how bad they appear to outsiders. Patriots fans still insist Spygate was no big advantage, despite the fact that the NFL levied its largest possible fine against Bill Belichick. Those same fans will never believe Tom Brady had anything to do with deflating footballs, and are just as willing to accept a Red Sox defense that lays everything at the feet of Cora’s former employer, the Astros, believing Cora changed his ways upon arriving at Fenway.

“In sport psychology, there is a concept called bracketed morality, which is the suspension of ethics or morality during competition,” Bean explained. “Research has focused on athletes, coaches, as well as fans. Fans can easily suspend their values or ethical beliefs for their home team and engage in legal, yet unethical, behavior. They can then apply this same bracketed morality when examining a case of cheating against their team.”


The more we advance our varying technologies, from camera angles and slow-motion replays to chemistry labs and doctored equipment, the more we know how the sausage is made. Like a game of cat and mouse, the cheaters try to stay ahead of the watchers, while the watchers try to catch the cheaters. For some perpetrators, that game can be as addicting as the one they’re meant to be playing.

A 2013 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers described it this way: “Many theories of moral behavior assume that unethical behavior triggers negative affect . . . we challenge this assumption and demonstrate that unethical behavior can trigger positive affect, which we term a ‘cheater’s high.’ ”

That high can come in various ways.

“In some cases, obviously selfishness, ego comes to mind, but in some cases cheating is weaponized to the extend you not only win, but you want to vanquish your opponent, embarrass them and annihilate them,” author Julie Fenster told me. Fenster published the book “Cheaters Always Win,” in December, in which she examined cheaters in many societal spheres, including sports.

“And so I often wonder with the baseball example — if these are teams that absolutely don’t need to cheat to win, but they do it anyway, I think beyond everything else they just want to make sure they embarrass the other team, the other pitcher in particular.”


But at what cost? When cheating scandals unfold, public trust in the fairness of what they are watching erodes. That’s what has baseball running scared now, why commissioner Rob Manfred had to inflict harsh discipline (fining the Astros and suspending their manager, A.J. Hinch, and their general manager, Jeff Luhnow, for a year) in the face of brazen disobedience by teams that had been warned specifically about using electronic devices for sign stealing. It’s why teams followed his example — the Astros subsequently fired both men, the Red Sox parted ways with Cora, and the Mets, who’d only just hired Carlos Beltran to his first managerial job, is out before ever working a game because of his role, as a player, with the Astros’ antics.

“Believe me, it’s a slippery slope,” Fenster said. “It could turn into wrestling, which used to be a mainstream sport. The Tour de France bicycle race has lost its glamour, internationally anyway, with the question of whose chemist is the best chemist. I think there’s a greater danger than any of these selfish teams, that the fans could easily go elsewhere. I don’t think the fans are out there to wonder what they’re seeing. They want to see brilliance on the field, not in the software department.”

The old adage has been repeated often lately — “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” I remember another one I grew up hearing: “Winners never cheat, and cheaters never win.”


Except, unfortunately, sometimes they do. The question is, why?

Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.